Tokyo - While analysts debate whether online commerce will ever take off or not, Japanese consumers are blazing a trail to the 21st century with one of the world’s most dramatic demonstrations of virtual shopping.
Though less than 1% of Japanese have access to the Internet and Japan is currently the least wired of the industrialized nations, Japanese are, per capita, the most enthusiastic Internet shoppers and the biggest buyers.
It’s one of the great untold stories of the Internet. If you ask people with successful commercial sites, they’ll all tell you the same story. The Japanese are out there and are excellent customers, says Ken McCarthy, founder of E-Media/San Francisco and the author of a popular book on Internet commerce published in Japan.
Top selling products include software, computer peripherals, music CDs, wine, and specialty foods. Japanese are also avid consumers of how to information about the Internet and the rate of growth in home page creation is higher there than anywhere else in the world.
Shinji Takeuchi, formerly with Nomura Research and now with JPN Intermedia, a CD-ROM publisher and software localizer in Silicon Valley, explains the trend: Thanks to an elaborate distribution system, consumer prices in Japan are the highest in the world. With the relative strength of the yen, American prices are so low, everything looks like a super bargain. Now the Internet makes it possible to reach across the ocean and go shopping in America with the same ease as buying from the local store. The results are absolutely predictable.
In spite of the obvious bonanza, many US web merchants have been slow to capitalize on the opportunity. There’s an odd myth going around that says all educated Japanese people like to read English. Wrong. While they do study it in school, the number of Japanese who are comfortable with English is very low. They infinitely prefer reading in their own language and it’s amazing how many companies are leaving so much money on the table by not taking the obvious step of translating their web sites and order forms into Japanese.
Takeuchi, a Japanese citizen who came to the US start his own business concurs: Actually, the typical Japanese person has no great love of the English language. It’s hard work!
To help his colleagues profit from the Internet's most lucrative gold rush, McCarthy’s company E-Media, has formed a new division, J-Ventures, to provide consulting, translation, web localization services, and, in some cases, venture capital, to web merchants who want to cash in on what catalog industry analyst Maxwell Sroge calls the greatest mail order market in recent history - maybe ever.