The recession is causing a massive consumer shift: No longer do Japan’s famously finicky and brand-conscious shoppers assume imported and no-name electronics are as cheap in quality as they are in price.
As products from toasters to laptops carry increasingly similar components and special features — and as consumers increasingly seek bargains — price is becoming as important a distinction here as it is in most countries.
Lesser-known manufacturers, which have seen success around the world for years, are finally cutting into the sales of homegrown electronics powerhouses like Sony Corp. and Panasonic Corp. And opportunities are opening here for retailers catering to consumers who are comfortable seeing electronics as commodities.
Nikkei Market Access, the research unit of Japan’s biggest business newspaper, the Nikkei, estimates that consumers expect to pay one-third less for a computer this year than they did last year.
Shinya Torihama, retail analyst at Okasan Securities Co., said products from lesser-known makers do well as long as consumers believe they offer quality comparable with bigger brands.
“Japanese are still picky about quality, but they are starting to take a much harder look at pricing,” Torihama said.
Those who lived through the luxury-worshipping bubble years of the 1980s now routinely compare prices and study reviews online, said Yoshiya Nomura, a supervisor at Dentsu Communication Institute.
“Japanese consumers these days are looking for what I’d call super cost performance,” Nomura said. “The choice is all about how a product is the best fit in matching an individual consumer’s needs.”
Newly frugal consumers may finally be ready for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which pushes electronics made outside Japan and has struggled since arriving in 2002 and taking over Seiyu Ltd.
At a Seiyu in Tokyo, a boxy, utilitarian clothes washer from China’s Haier selling for ¥19,700 sits next to a curvy, futuristic Panasonic machine selling for ¥137,000.
“A lot of people don’t care about brands,” sales clerk Masataka Komorida said. “Product choice varies among individuals. The Haier is being bought by both the young and the elderly.”
Komorida said he expects to sell five or 10 of the Haier washers on a busy day, compared with one or two of the Panasonics per month. Haier’s fridge appeared in the Nikkei Market Access list of the 10 best-sellers for the first time in September, ranking after five from Japanese makers.
BCN Inc., which compiles data from retailers, two years ago found only two of the 10 best-selling laptops in Japan were made by foreign companies.
The top 10 now include laptops from six foreign makers: Acer Inc. and AsusTek Computer Inc. in Taiwan; China’s Lenovo Group; and Dell Inc., Apple Inc. and Gateway of the U.S., though Gateway is now owned by Acer.
About 77 percent of smaller laptops sold here now come from Taiwanese makers, according to GfK Marketing Services Japan. Japanese makers still dominate in desktops and larger laptops and higher-end products, like 50-inch TVs.
New arrivals are generally limited to niche areas because most Japanese still believe their country’s products are superior to any made abroad, said Nikkei Market Access editor in chief Atsushi Matsubara.
“It remains to be seen whether this new trend will stick or grow to become mainstream,” Matsubara said. “If they don’t match Japanese lifestyles, the products won’t sell in big numbers.”
Domestic companies are fighting back by bringing down prices for lower-end products such as toasters and low-tech washers, while packing their higher-end items with perks: refrigerators than can kill bacteria, washers that save energy and air conditioners that moisturize the skin.
Haier is a clear hit for those who just want the basics, said Komorida.
“The market is now divided into two extremes,” he said.
Mamoru Obayashi, a Yokohama resident who owns numerous gadgets, buys at both extremes. His computers are from lesser known makers in South Korea and Taiwan as well as Apple and Toshiba.
The 55-year-old college professor recently bought a ¥3,790 made-in-China DVD player called Wee, a clear echo of Wii, the hit game console from Nintendo Co. The dubious naming strategy by Maxer, a tiny Japanese company, didn’t bother him a bit.
“It works perfectly,” he said. “At the same time, it is very small and cheap.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.