• Kyodo

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Japan's subscription business model has taken an unconventional turn during the coronavirus pandemic, as firms push luxury items for home rental to help people introduce a little more variety to lives spent mostly indoors.

Once limited to products such as newspapers, magazines and digital streaming services, subscription services are being developed in creative new ways to allow people to do things — such as eating food from high-quality ceramic tableware — that would normally have been only a rare treat experienced outside the home.

Yukako Kobayashi, 45, started using a rental service handled by tableware sharing company Shunyality in Nagoya in February.

"I get the enjoyment of changing the contents of my cupboard each month," she said.

Shunyality started a subscription service for Mino and Seto ware — Japanese pottery famous in the Tokai region — last November.

Along with platters and small plates, a person can rent a total of nine ceramic pieces featuring teacups and small bowls — with each piece normally priced at several tens of thousands of yen if purchased at retail — for ¥3,300 per month.

Kobayashi, a part-time worker, said she also values subscription services as a green option.

"Sharing without ownership is easy on the environment and ecological," she said.

The tableware has been carefully chosen by staff from potters and wholesalers, and has gained a reputation among users for "brightening the ambiance around the dining table," the company said.

Subscribers can change tableware each month and enjoy the variety of colors and shapes of dishes in the different sets. If a dish is damaged in the course of using it, the company will replace the same item free of charge.

Experts say the unique subscription services appeal to people who have rarely ventured outside for enjoyment since the pandemic upended their lives.

"This resolves inconveniences people have from the restraints of not going outside, and these services are important as a substitute for the value they were used to having," said Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting senior consultant Kazuma Tanaka.

Kikuya Seishindo, a company in Nagoya that sells a variety of incense, started a subscription service in April.

Calling itself an "incense concierge," the company delivers customers packages of incense each month tailored to seasonal changes — six sticks each of two fragrances over 12 months — for ¥1,650 per month, including a Mino ware incense plate and holder for first-time orders.

The company says the subscription service was created in response to customers complaining of no longer being able to feel the seasons change since they have spent more time at home.

"We hope people can soothe the stress they have built up during the pandemic with our fragrances," said Kikuya Seishindo President Masahiko Kikuya.

Some subscription services, meanwhile, are looking to appeal to those venturing outside after extended periods remaining cooped up.

For example, Doroquia Holatheta, an Osaka-based company whose main business is cafe management, has begun a subscription service for fans of its premium Sakimoto brand of shokupan — loaves of bread.

For ¥1,000 a month, customers eating at Sakae cafe in Nagoya, which opened last November, can receive one slice of bread a day, along with a choice of one of its two popular jumbo-sized loaves of regular bread for free every month. They are normally priced at ¥900 and ¥950, respectively.

Customers eating at the cafe, however, must order a drink and bread condiments to use the service, which is currently only available at the Sakae store, although there are plans to expand nationwide.

"We started this service targeting both those who use the cafe mainly in their teens and 20s and others in their 30s and 40s who often buy the bread for takeout," said a store employee.

Mitsubishi UFJ's Tanaka believes such unconventional subscription services could be around for the long haul, if they can continue to tap into customer needs.

"They will need to continue to develop value to please customers and reduce subscription cancellation rates," Tanaka said.

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