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Pole position in Japan’s home printer market changed hands in 2004 for the first time in eight years, with the two principal rivals in the sector pursuing starkly contrasting product strategies.

Seiko Epson Corp., the longtime market leader, betted heavily on multifunction printers, which proved popular during the vital yearend shopping season. Still, it lost out to Canon Inc., which stuck to print-only conventional models.

Epson expects multifunction demand to increase this year, while Canon remains skeptical.

“This past yearend season, we shifted our focus to multifunction, even if that meant denying our own single-function models,” said Naoyuki Saeki, general manager of the product planning department at Epson Sales Japan Corp., the firm’s marketing unit.

According to data provided by the companies in question, Canon beat Epson in the domestic market in 2004, capturing a 48.1 percent share against its rival’s 46.9 percent slice.

Both companies used figures complied by GfK Marketing Services Japan Ltd., which tracks sales data at electrical appliance stores.

Hewlett-Packard, the global giant that produces more than four in every 10 color inkjet printers in the world, has been relegated to a distant third here, capturing a single-digit share.

Industry officials attribute the success achieved by Epson and Canon to local consumers’ particularity when it comes to photo printing quality. The Japanese firms have established strong reputations in terms of the relevant technologies.

Epson claims it sold more printers than Canon during the yearend season, though it admits its performance in this period did not not quite make up for a slippage at the beginning of the year.

“We were not able to respond to a demand shift to cheaper models” during the period following the 2003 yearend season,” Saeki said.

Epson first rose to the top of the pile in Japan in 1996, when it released a printer featuring high photo printing quality, targeting the nation’s growing number of digital camera users.

Epson then stayed ahead of its rivals by introducing innovative features for home photo printing, including a set of color inks promising photo longevity and printing free of white margins.

Yet Canon gained ground steadily, placing its own emphasis on photo printing quality.

As the two approached a faceoff in the 2004 yearend season, Epson threw its full weight behind multifunction printers, which double as scanners and copiers.

This strategy was aimed at stimulating replacement demand, with the domestic market having pretty much matured. Epson officials said the added features of multifunction models should prove effective in coaxing consumers to switch over.

Canon, meanwhile, stuck to print-only models, asserting that those who buy multifunction machines seldom use the scanner and copier features.

“For a majority of consumers, photo printing quality remains the utmost concern,” said Koichi Mikami, general manager of the inkjet printer marketing division at Canon Sales Co.

Comparing machines in the same price range, the photo printing quality of single function models is a notch higher, Mikami said.

Epson apparently won the October-December showdown, both firms said without supplying specific numbers.

But the reportedly slim margin between them surprised industry insiders.

“We had thought multifunction models would sell big and dedicated premium display spots to them,” said Takahiko Kamiyama, a clerk at a Yodobashi Camera store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

“But Canon’s single function models actually sold better than multifunction. I think demand for scanners is not that big yet.”

Kamiyama and industry watchers said Canon’s strengths were its innovative designs and the new functions featured in its new models.

Canon adopted a sleek black box design, redolent of traditional Japanese lacquer craft. A paper feeder sits at the bottom of the machine within the box, marking a break from conventional models that have feeders protruding from behind.

Another clincher for consumers was said to be a new feature that accelerates the process of printing dozens of New Year’s cards: It automatically flips paper over and prints both sides.

“Single function models turned more popular than we had expected,” Epson’s Saeki acknowledged.

But he remained confident in the firm’s strategy, saying demand for multifunction models has been strong this month.

Canon said it is premature to commit itself to multifunction models.

“We are currently watching market trends, seeing how consumers who bought printers last year use them,” Mikami said.

Tomoko Mitani, an analyst at a research firm Gartner Japan Inc., said the overall market trend is inclined toward multifunction models.

Multifunction models currently account for 30 percent of the market, and will soon exceed 50 percent, according to Mitani.

“If the makers want people to use printers all through the year (not just at yearend), they have no choice but to introduce more multifunction models,” she said.

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