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Namie Amuro tops Nikkei Marketing Journal's list of 2018's most popular products and services

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Described in its choice for the year’s yokozuna (grand champion) as dasa-kakoyosa — something that’s behind the times, but cool nonetheless — entertainer Namie Amuro appeared at the top of the Nikkei Marketing Journal’s 48th annual Hitto Shohin Banzuke (ranking of hit products) on Dec. 5.

The Okinawa-born pop diva of the Heisei Era, whose music career began in 1992, attracted 800,000 fans to her series of nationwide concerts in the run-up to her retirement in September. She also sold 2.41 million copies of her albums.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal is credited with coining the term “hitto shohin” (“hit product”) as a promotional move after the thrice-weekly newspaper covering retailing and distribution was launched in 1971, when its management came up with the novel idea of ranking the year’s most popular products and services using a stylized list of sumo wrestler rankings, called a banzuke, to publicize the year’s bestsellers.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal’s banzuke, which appears the first week in December, adorns page one with traditional brush calligraphy in east-west sumo-style rankings, with sumo ranks such as yokozuna (grand champion) and ozeki (champion) assigned to the most popular items.

Opposite Amuro’s yokozuna slot, on the banzuke’s west side, was TikTok, the 15-second sound and image application from China that has won over more than 500 million young people worldwide.

Some of the standouts on the list were use of smartphones as a cash substitute, in second place; the new Takashimaya shopping center at Nihonbashi, which attracted 2.5 million visitors in the two months since its opening in September (seventh place); and record-setting high temperatures in July, which led to “super heat consumption,” such as demand for air conditioners (1.76 million units sold)(ninth place).

Scattered throughout the list could be found famous brands such as Kirin, Toyota, Nikon, Gucci, Shiseido and Takaratomi. Also represented was the successful Japan release of Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” tapioca milk tea from Taiwan, facial cosmetics for men; and onigiri-style rice balls made from mochimugi (a type of high-fiber barley).

In keeping with the sumo tradition, Nikkei Marketing Journal bestowed three “prizes” — for outstanding performance, fighting spirit and technique — which went, respectively, to Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels (winner of the American League rookie of the year award); Japan’s national team at the FIFA Soccer World Cup; and an award shared between actor Yoshi Murotsu and environmentally friendly paper straws. The year’s booby prize went to cryptocurrencies.

Sometimes these hits are just one-time fads, newfangled items whose fame is transitory. Nikkei Marketing Journal strongly insists the hit products it selects should be differentiated from fads, although sometimes the distinction isn’t easy to make. Visible popularity — such as in the form of long queues of customers waiting outside shops — can be a key factor in the choice, but for a product or service to warrant designation as a true “hit,” it should either carve out a completely new type of consumption or at the very least impose change on the direction of the market.

One such example was in 1987, when Kao Corp. launched “Attack,” a concentrated laundry detergent in a compact package, making it easier for a housewife on a bicycle to carry home from the store. It also took up less space, needed less water and electricity to get clothes clean, and was environmentally friendly. Attack went from a hit to become the industry standard and a long seller.

And what, do you ask, is in store for consumers next year? Certainly consumption is likely to spike during the extended 10-day public holiday from April 27 through May 6. The present Heisei Era will end with Emperor Akihito’s abdication on April 30 and the ascension of the Crown Prince to the Chrysanthemum Throne will herald a new, as yet to be unnamed, era from May 1.

Making its debut next autumn at the COREDO Muromachi Terrace in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi will be Taiwan’s Seihin Seikatsu (English name: Eslite Spectrum), specialty stores selling books, sundry goods, soft drinks and a food service. Already being described as Japan’s “first Taiwan-style theme park,” it represents an interesting new departure from the U.S.-style shopping mall.

Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2, is likely to impact TV sales, among other things.

One anticipated stumbling block is that from Oct. 1, the government will hike the consumption tax on goods and services from 8 percent to 10 percent. Some are warning that “vague” handling of tax exemptions or rebates — aimed at lightening the burden on the elderly and certain other groups — is likely to result in confusion.

While it’s natural for products to bask in the light of success, weekly magazine Nikkei Business (Dec. 3) took the opposite tack, with a headline that asks, “Mono wa ii no ni, naze urenai?” (“Although the items are good, why aren’t they selling?”).

One of the typical failures it dwelt on was products (including travel destinations) billed as Wasei … (something made in Japan). The writer found three downsides to taking this approach. First, the failed product was not particularly original or unique; second, it suffered in comparison to a predecessor, raising the potential risk of customer disappointment; and, third, with the exception of actually being “Japanese,” the products had nothing particularly outstanding to recommend them. Certainly climbing aboard the nationalism bandwagon is no sure formula for success.

The same report carried a fascinating section that analyzed how advertising can make or break a new product. For instance, the ad catch copy that boosted Apple’s iPod music player to market dominance went, “You can carry 1,000 tunes in your pocket.” A rival manufacturer had less luck when it boasted its model was “the world’s smallest” — as that immediately raised the question in the consumer’s mind that, “If it’s really that small, can it hold 1,000 tunes?”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.