Photo:Robbert Noordzij on Flickr

Online Shopping: Japan Style

When the internet was still in its infancy back in the late 90s, I recall a rather flippant comment a TV commentator made regarding the future of online communications and the world wide web: “The internet,” he said “will ultimately only be good for two things.

"Shopping and adult entertainment!”

Of course Taiken Japan is a family friendly website, so if you were hoping for an extensive piece of writing about the latter then sadly you won’t find it here. That is, after all, why Google’s “safe search” has an off switch!

No, for my latest inane ramblings, today I wish to talk about online shopping in Japan.

Whilst the likes of eBay and more recently Amazon have been household names, synonymous with the online shopping world for more than a decade in the UK and the US, online shopping is still a relatively new concept here in Japan. This revelation may surprise a few people, considering the way in which Japan is world-renowned for its high technology, and integrated communication systems.

One of the reasons behind this is that Japan is still, by and large, a cash based society. A recent survey showed that, in spite of online banking facilities being the norm these days, around 70% of Japanese people over the age of 30 still visit the local branch of their bank on a weekly basis.

Even something as routine as a debit card, seemed almost revolutionary when it finally became commonplace here in Osaka about 2 years ago.

Finally, though, it seems in the last 18 months or so that Japan is catching up to the rest of the world when it comes to online shopping. Amazon Japan was launched some time ago, but it is only really in the last 2 years or so, via an aggressive marketing and promotional campaign that it has finally begun to enjoy the kind of status the UK and US wings of the company have already enjoyed for several years.

Photo: Intel Free Press on Flickr is also one of those few Japanese company websites that is “foreigner-friendly”. For the linguistically ignorant, such as myself, who despite living here for some time still haven’t become fully literate in Japanese, the English homepage of Amazon Japan is something of a blessing. Whilst it certainly doesn’t list all of the millions of products on offer from the site. The headings and English search options, and pull-down menus certainly make navigating around the site and searching for specific products in English a lot easier.

eBay has, unfortunately been far slower on the uptake. For the entirety of the 2 and half years I have lived here in Osaka, the eBay Japan English homepage remains “under construction”, seemingly stuck in what movie producers call “development hell”.

Of course it’s not only the big multinationals that are getting in on the act. There’s plenty of domestic competition for online customers too.

Chief amongst those leading the charge to claim your hard-earned yen is Rakuten.

Department stores, credit cards, personal finance, Rakuten Corporation certainly have their fingers in plenty of the proverbial “pies”. However, in Japan, it really is too close to call as to who currently enjoys the greater share of Japanese customers.

Although their website is primarily in Japanese, perhaps as a sign of the changing times and the continuing, albeit slow opening up of the Japanese business sector to foreign customers, more and more individual sellers and shops on Rakuten are using English to try and attract an international customer base.

Indeed, Rakuten’s online shop has expanded internationally, with a US based, international shopping site going live just over a year ago.

Whichever site you use, there are a few unique quirks and characteristics to Japanese online shopping that make the whole experience just a little different from what you may be used to back in your country of origin.

Photo: Pierre Rattini on Flickr

For example, as I mentioned earlier, Japan is still a cash-based society, and as such there remains a significant number within the population who do not have access to either a credit or debit card, nor do they ever have any intentions of getting one.

For me personally, I have never had a credit card, nor do I ever have any real desire to get one. Quite frankly, I’ve always been something of an impulse buyer and I wouldn’t trust myself with that kind of money!

Anyway, as anyone who has ever tried to shop online without a credit or debit card back home will tell you, it is an absolute nightmare trying to buy anything online without one.

Not so here in Japan.

As in any business, understanding your customer base and their needs and wants is crucial to success. With this in mind, the likes of Rakuten, Amazon and even the credit card companies themselves have provided a number of possible solutions.

Firstly, with many, but not all purchases made on Rakuten or Amazon, there is the option of paying “cash on delivery”. In other words, you pay nothing upon ordering, but instead just give the money to the postman when he delivers your item.

Convenience stores like 7-11 and Family Mart can also be a big help here.

As one of my hobbies, I have a subscription to the monthly Star Trek Starships Collection. So, each month I get two magazines and two accompanying die-cast models (the Borg Cube is my personal favourite). However, my lack of a credit card, thankfully, isn’t a problem in this regard. Enclosed with the models each month is a receipt with a barcode. I simply take this code to the convenience store, the clerk scans it and I pay in cash there and then. As well as online purchases, many people in Japan, myself included, also opt to pay their monthly utility and phone bills in this way.

There is another, final option for the credit-card phobic such as me. Convenience stores across Japan now offer virtual credit cards. These can be purchased in prepaid amounts of 5, 10, or 20,000 yen. The card contains a serial number. When you set up an online account with the company in question, you can redeem this same amount of money as credit to your online account by entering the code. Anyone who has ever used Sony’s PSN Store, or Microsoft’s X-Box Live Market, will know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Your online account generates a new credit card number and accompanying security code each time you top up the account, input this information into the relevant shopping site when you make a purchase the same way as you would the information from your credit card.

These vouchers are safe, secure and best of all they allow you to enjoy the benefits of a credit card, without any of the dangers of overspending.

Ok, that’s enough talking for one day. Let’s go shopping!

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