2 Nov 2017
Restlessness and Fear for the Future Weigh Heavy on Tokyo Gift Show
Held just weeks before the announcements of Japan's snap general election, this year's Tokyo International Gift Show saw exhibitors fear for their future prosperity, while also being largely unwilling to accept any fundamental changes.
This year's Tokyo International Gift Show Life X Design took place just a few weeks before Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, announced a snap election. As it transpired, the event was dominated by many of the factors that coloured the subsequent election campaign – a general restlessness, a concern for the future and an unwillingness to accept too much change.
As with the electorate at large, many exhibitors were also preoccupied with the likely effects of the country's consumption tax, despite the fact that its long-mooted hike to 10% has been postponed until October 2019 at the earliest. Together with the country's far from buoyant consumer market, many at the show felt that the uncertainties over the tax meant that they now had to work harder than ever just to survive, with little chance of actually becoming more prosperous.
Another major concern was the constant need to find new markets. Interestingly, there was a notable variation in the tactics employed to woo potential customers. While some favoured a "scattergun approach" – launching a substantial number of different products simultaneously and then pushing those that proved their appeal – others took a more laser-like approach, focusing solely on the one product they truly believed in. Inevitably, many companies adopted a combination of both approaches, all opting for different points on the scattergun/laser spectrum.
Among those opting for a primarily scattergun approach was Narumi, one of Japan's largest and most well-known tableware brands. Accordingly, this year the company had a particularly wide range of items on offer, including its proprietary bone china, several cut-glass brands and a selection of one-off products, most notably barometers, candleholders, crystal ornaments and several large and expensive objets d'art.
Outlining the company's current situation, Riyako Kawai, a Designer in its sales development division, said: "We are always on the lookout for new product lines. This is vital for us as our traditional market is underperforming and demand is in decline.
"Previously, we primarily sold through the larger outlets, including our bespoke boutiques within the Takashimaya and Matsuzakaya department stores. Now, though, we want to expand into other areas, such as interior decor or gift shops. At the same time, we are also developing e-narumi.com, our online portal. Given our expanded retail presence, it has become essential for us to broaden the range of items we offer."
One problem with such rapid expansion, however, is the damage it can do to brand identity. While previously Narumi was a distinctive, aspirational brand, selling solely traditional European-style chinaware, now it stocks a far wider range of designs, including contemporary ceramics, traditional Japanese products and child-friendly tableware. On top of all that, it has also added an extensive selection of non-chinaware items.
One of the most surprising items to be found on its stand was a funerary set for cremated pets, complete with an urn for the animal's ashes, an incense burner and a small plate for food intended to sustain the spirit of the departed. Retailing for about US$130, its inclusion reflects the growing importance of pets among Japan's ever-increasing number of elderly consumers.
Explaining just why the company had chosen to showcase this unusual item, Kawai said: "This is definitely one of our outliers. We are not offering it for sale quite yet, but we are keen to get feedback from potential purchasers."
Another problem with the scattergun approach is that, inevitably, many products fail or only enjoy limited popularity, resulting in a lot of waste and money in terms of development and promotion. Acknowledging this, Kawai said: "In order to find products that work, we have to be highly speculative in terms of what we produce or distribute."
At the far end of the scale from Narumi's speculative approach is the laser-like precision with which Kobe-based World Production Partners (WPP) evaluates each prospective product line. Only when such an item has weathered in-depth scrutiny by industry professionals and demonstrated its compliance with the company's longstanding business principles is it ever brought to market.
Clearly having navigated its way through WPP's harsh criteria, A Greening, a new designer brand, provided the centrepiece for the company's 2017 stand. The brand – that largely focuses on long, loose shirts and a number of accessories – brought together many of the features that have long proved popular in the Japanese market.
Chief among these was the use of pure, natural materials throughout the range, together with a loose cut and an informal use of muted tones. Overall, the essence of the brand seemed to be an overt simplicity matched by discrete quality.
Recounting the brand's back story, Director Masayuki Matsubara said: "When we launched this brand back in the summer, we were aiming for something very pure, simple, loose and relaxed, but with the kind of quality feel that would sit well in the middle market. We are using silk and viscose throughout the range, together with tightly woven cotton, which creates a smoother and less fluffy feel.
"Overall, while research is very important to us, we also rely heavily on our design team and our creative director. They all have considerable fashion experience and we trust in their guru-like abilities to read the market."
Access to guru-like insights and a clear understanding of market fundamentals is particularly valuable in the current environment, where consumer demand is notoriously fickle. As well as proving a challenge for manufacturers, getting a handle on the current must-have products is also of primary importance to importers/distributors.
Proving an insight into this particular sector, Jason Lee, the Manager of Jabez Japan, an Osaka-based wholesale exporter, said: "For us, competing with the larger companies on price terms alone is very difficult. Typically, they carry everyday products at prices so low that we can't match them.
"As a result, my focus is on finding something a little more expensive, something that offers us a higher margin. While I tend to look for items that have a bit of a hook, it's also important not to go for products that are too offbeat or unique as they can be hard to sell."
This year, Lee was pinning his hopes on Listen ($50), an up-market mobile-phone amplifier created by Plus One Electronics, an Incheon-based high-tech manufacturer. Said to combine novelty and the facility to meet an existing need, its overall design has an appealing seashell-like feel.
Another confirmed believer in the appeal of combining novelty with established utility is Makaini, a Tokyo-based cosmetics company. To date, its key strategy has been to launch new products that offer an innovative take on ranges that have already proved successful.
Originally established in Kanagawa – a coastal province to the south of Tokyo – as a manufacturer of traditional gold-leaf products, the company moved into the cosmetics sector 11 years ago following the appointment of a new Chief Executive.
Explaining this change of direction, Maho Hayashi, a member of the company's promotional team, said: "We officially became a cosmetics business back in 2006 after we launched a gold-leaf gel face toner, which contained flecks of real gold. When you rub the gold into your skin, it rejuvenates it and makes it more supple."
Utilising skills honed in the traditional Japanese craft sector, the company soon developed an approach that embraced the country's preferred aesthetics, but with a sleek and updated edge. Combining elements of both the scattergun and the laser-like approach, its core offer of stylish cosmetics with a dash of Japanese heritage has seen it maintain a strong identity, while also allowing it to branch out into a number of innovative new product lines.
When asked which products best embody the company's approach, Hayashi said: "Our big sellers are our konjac sponge face scrub pads ($7) and our hand creams with food-like scents – mint lemonade, grapefruit, and mikan citrus ($14). Our range of body towels ($12), all made from tough traditional Japanese paper, also do very well for us."
The Tokyo International Gift Show Life X Design 2017 took place at Tokyo Design Site from 30 August to 2 September. It attracted 300 exhibitors and 50,291 visitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo