As the year rushes toward its finale, Japan’s media devotes a lot of coverage to identifying hitto shōhin (ヒット商品, hit products) that have succeeded in capturing consumers’ hearts and minds over the previous 12 months.

Consumer preferences have changed remarkably since the baburu keizai (バブル経済, bubble economy) of the 1980s. For a few short years, people spent on goods and services like there was no tomorrow. At the time, a market-research company hired this writer to produce a periodical covering Japan’s consumer, social and demographic trends. Trend-watching is an inexact science, but there was plenty of data to work with — Japan didn’t get its reputation of being a jōhō-ka shakai (情報化社会, information-intensive society) for nothing.

Much of my mornings were spent poring over stacks of mainstream newspapers, magazines, trade publications and government white papers. As I skimmed the headlines, I kept my eyes peeled for kīwādo (キーワード, key words) indicating consumer markets were in the throes of change.

For example, an item might report favorable sales with rather dry terms such as mokuhyō tassei (目標達成) or mokuhyō wo uwamawaru (目標を上回る), which mean, respectively, the maker’s sales target was reached or exceeded.

It was much more fun to see the expression ōuke (大受け, great acceptance — or “going for it”) or baka-ure (バカ売れ, selling like crazy), which spoke of a certain product or service really being on a roll. The opposite of these might be fushin (不振, slump), funinki (不人気, unpopular) or gekigen(激減, drastic decline).

When it came to reporting on hit products, I learned that the Nikkei Ryūtsū Shimbun (日経流通新聞, Japan Marketing Journal), a thrice-weekly newspaper covering retailing and distribution, was the grandpappy of the science of proclaiming hits, having first pronounced judgment on the year’s bestselling products back in 1971.

For 38 years now, these have appeared on the front page of the journal each December in a banzuke (番付, list of rankings) that adopts the same bulky calligraphy used in sumo rankings. Also as with sumo, the JMJ ranks hit products into east and west camps, with yokozuna (横綱, grand champion) at the top, followed by ōzeki (大関, champion), sekiwake (関脇, junior champion) and so on down the pecking order.

The JMJ may not have invented the term hitto shōhin, but its sumo-style banzuke caught the public’s attention and made it a household word. Rival publishers now jump in earlier with their own lists of hits. For instance, the research arm of Dentsu advertising agency, Dentsu Soken, released its listing in late November, and DIME, a biweekly trend magazine, pre-empted the JMJ list (Dec. 3) by two days. Nikkei Trendy, another Nikkei publication, also beat out the banzuke with a list of “Best 30” products in the first week in November. That magazine’s special feature runs over 40 pages; it also makes predictions for the year to come.

In this economic downturn, it’s even more crucial for manufacturers and retailers to understand the consumer mindset. Analysts studying consumer spending trends over the past year have used phrases such as “saifu no himo ga kataku naru bakari” (財布の紐が固くなるばかり, the purse strings only got tighter). Indeed, many of 2008’s top hits, such as so-called “private brand” (プライベートブランド) items (including food and electrical goods), offered by 7-11 Japan and AEON supermarkets, achieved market success by appealing to thrift.

Among other hit products recognized this year were H&M wear, a tieup with Swedish garment firm Hennes & Mauritz AB and Japan’s UNIQLO; ultracompact PC laptops from Acer and other Taiwanese firms; carbohydrate-free beverages; Apple’s iPhone; Nintendo’s WiiFit video-game unit, which features software to help battle middle-age spread; Blu-ray DVD recorders; and Jero, Jerome Charles White, Jr., a vocalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who croons enka (演歌, traditional Japanese ballads).

While making it onto the list of hits brings a company welcome publicity, most business people see true success as coming not through short-term fads but by marketing “naga-uri shōhin”(長売り商品, long sellers), especially those that create “burando no kodawari” (ブランドのこだわり, preference for a particular brand) and thereby generate jōrenkyaku (常連客, regular customers), also referred to as ripītā (リピーター, repeaters).

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