Lawson eyes Thailand as base for Asian operations

Kyodo

Lawson Inc. President Takeshi Niinami said in a recent interview that the convenience store chain will enter the Thai market in fiscal 2013, a move he hopes will serve as a springboard for a push into Myanmar and other emerging markets in Southeast Asia.

The retailer’s push into Thailand is a sign that Japanese convenience stores’ expansion abroad is kicking into high gear, in reaction to a shrinking domestic market.

Thailand is becoming a business magnet in Southeast Asia and there are many English-speaking people, he said, adding Lawson will spend five years building a solid base in the country.

While the company had aimed to set up in Myanmar this year, Niinami said, “We’ve decided to secure a firm footing in Thailand before launching an offensive in Myanmar, where distribution infrastructure and the legal system are still insufficient.”

For the same reason, Lawson is delaying its plan to open stores in India, according to Niinami.

In China, its key overseas market, Lawson is sticking to its policy to set up shop in Beijing in fiscal 2013 although bilateral relations, which have become strained over contested islets in the East China Sea, caused some proposed business deals to fall through.

However, Niinami pointed to the need to adopt the concept of “China plus one” in order to diversify risk.

So it is important for Japan to sign up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade accord, which seeks in principle to eliminate all trade tariffs, as well as other free-trade deals involving Southeast Asian nations, he said. Japanese retailers can become competitive by exporting quality farm produce from Japan at low cost, he added.

Niinami on the other hand took a less sanguine view of the Japanese market, which he said is embattled by “deflation and heated competition (among retailers) to open new shops.”

He said Lawson will try for the moment to attract more customers to existing outlets instead of opening more, a different tack from rivals, which will continue to open even more stores in Japan in fiscal 2013.

To broaden his company’s customer base, Niinami said, “We won’t try to be another alternative to supermarkets, but compete with shops in the basements of department stores.” Sections in department store basements are known for the abundance of quality food.

Niinami said he goes out to inspect basement shops of department stores himself in search of new ideas.

He said his aim is to reform the company’s production and distribution systems to deliver premium vegetables and precooked dishes at even lower prices.

Hello Kitty store

Convenience store chain Lawson Inc. will open a store that specializes in Sanrio Co.’s Hello Kitty character goods on Jan. 10 in Tokyo, company sources said Wednesday.

By selling goods of the popular cat character that is recognized worldwide, Lawson is apparently seeking to raise the profile of its health-conscious Natural Lawson stores among foreign tourists.

A corner dedicated to the character goods will be set up on the second floor of an existing Natural Lawson store near Tokyo Station along with a lounge where shoppers can eat food bought at the convenience store.