Want to sell your product overseas ? Know thine enemy.


Because I live here in Tokyo I do get inquiries occasionally from US and Canadian companies that want to sell their products in Japan. Sometimes I can see a market for the product here. For example two years ago a small company in Georgia wanted me to look into the viability of selling US lumber in Japan. This was not a bad idea because Japan does import a significant amount of lumber from the US, Canada, Australia, China etc. But therein lay the problem, I later realized. There was just too much competition, esp from China for a small company in Georgia to expect to sell lumber in Japan without a full-time presence here. More recently a watch designer in CA has expressed some interest in Japan because he does sell about 20 watches a month online to Japanese customers. His watches seem to have a unique design so it may not be a bad idea.

But sometimes I look at the product and I really have to wonder. A home décor company once asked me about selling high-end New Zealand wool throws here. But I had to tell them that I really didn’t think that would go over well in Japan simply because many Japanese use futons and the throw might seem like a bit of an odd concept for people who sleep on the floor most of the time. A preliminary search of online retailers turned up no throws. So this company might have had 100% share of the market or 0. A very risky proposition. I never heard from them again. And there was the Pet Products company that approached me a few months back and asked me about selling their dog bowls in Japan. On the face of it, not a bad idea because the pet products industry in Japan is huge. But how would a dog bowl whose main selling point is its durability going to match up against local products that are equally if not more durable seeing as they are designed for dogs that spend most of their time outside – because many Japanese do not let their dogs in the house ? Another selling point of the bowl was that it is dishwasher safe. Right then the alarms go off in my mind. I do not know any Japanese who are going to want to wash their dog bowl in the family dishwasher. In Japan this would be the stuff for neighborhood scandal. Not surprisingly when I raised these issues with the company, and told them that it really would make sense to do a feasibility study which would include visiting some stores, talking to dog owners and potential distributors to get valuable feedback, they quickly lost interest. Obviously they just didn’t want to pay me to do research which might have completely taken the wind out of their sails but which also might have provided them with some valuable insights on how they could more effectively market their product here.

My favorite story though of how an overseas company can really stumble in Japan involves General Mills and its failed attempt to bring Betty Crocker to Japan. The Japanese love cake. That was not the problem. The problem apparently was that so few Japanese households at the time had ovens. I can understand because we have lived here for two and a half years and we just got our first oven last month. It was the biggest oven in the biggest appliance store in town. But just one look at it and I can see that it would be a real squeeze to fit a Betty Crocker cake in there.

In the words of. Lao Tsu 知己知彼,百战不殆. Zhi Ji Zhi Bi, Bai Zhan bu Dai
Trans: know thine enemy.



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