Small Tokyo shop earns big money by responding to consumer tastes for quality rice

Kyodo

Suzunobu is a tiny rice shop in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, but it earns as much as ¥150 million a year, an impressive figure given many other local rice shops are reeling due to fierce price competition with major supermarket chains.

Suzunobu sells about 120 rice brands produced across the nation, including Tsuyahime from Miyagi Prefecture and Uwaba Koshihikari from Saga Prefecture.

“We are responding to a diverse range of consumer tastes,” said Toyozo Nishijima, 49, who operates Suzunobu. “Even if the brand is the same, the rice tastes different each time, depending on the soil, water or air it was grown in.”

Nishijima, who earned a university degree in civil engineering, went on to work as a farming consultant at a Hokkaido-based agricultural research agency where he learned farming.

After taking over Suzunobu, his family’s shop, in September 1988, he began devising branding strategies for rice growers in various regions to help them wrestle with falling consumption. The efforts paid off, with his firm receiving one request after another for advice from struggling rice producers.

A project Suzunobu undertook in 2010 was to create a special brand for a farmer living in a Hokkaido village facing a decrease in the population. The new brand became a hit soon after the project was featured on a TV program. The farmer received a staggering 100 orders on the first day.

What has made Suzunobu so popular amid the generally sluggish state of the rice market is its customer-oriented sales method, with much time spent on explaining each brand being sold, a service not available at large supermarkets or mass discounters. The shop even proposes recipes that are likely to match the rice brand customers have chosen.

According to Nishijima, consumers in the rice market have been polarized into two camps: those seeking discount rice of average quality and those who prioritize the origin of products and taste in choosing rice. The latter type of customer can be a source of new business opportunities for rice retailers like Suzunobu, he said.

Rice consumption has been falling in Japan, affected by a change in people’s dietary habits and increased consumer preference for Western foods in addition to the declining population.

Working with farmers who seek his advice, Nishijima proposes a marketing strategy that reflects at least 10 unique points of the brand.

He will even prepare countermeasures to take in the event that the initial branding strategy does not work.

“If we say only nice things, farmers will not be able to rise up again in the event of failure,” he said. “We are always foreseeing what may happen to farmers five or 10 years ahead.”

Nishijima said that he hopes every town in Japan will have at least one rice shop that can connect farmers with consumers.

“The potential of rice is yet to be known,” he said.