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Selling Apples Takes More Than One Pitch In Japan

Yuichi Okazaki got a taste of Washington grown apples while grocery shopping on a recent Saturday in a Tokyo suburb.

He sampled a U.S. red Delicious apple at Ito Yokado, one of the nation’s largest retail chains.

Ito Yokado, which might be comparable to a Fred Meyer store with groceries, is what the Japanese call a “superstore.” Such one-stop shopping stores are a notch below more expensive department stores.

Okazaki thought the apples looked unnaturally shiny, but he liked the taste and price.

The Washington Apple Commission is targeting shoppers such as Okazaki, who frequent larger retail stores. But they also must appeal to a different type of Japanese consumer who’s loyal to much smaller neighborhood storefronts.

That’s because the retail grocery market in Japan is more fragmented than in the United States, where the vast majority of sales are at large supermarkets.

Similar stores control about half of Japan’s retail market, said Jim Thomas, a spokesman for the Washington Apple Commission. Mom-and-pop grocers, who have all but disappeared in the United States, control the other half.

One marketing challenge, Thomas said, was developing “point of purchase materials and signs that were big enough to make an impact at a large retail store, but small enough to fit in front of one box at a mom-and-pop store.”

Even at larger Japanese stores that resemble American grocery stores, service and shopping patterns differ.

In Japanese stores, workers show respect to their customers by using formal Japanese.

The saying, “The customer is always right” has a Japanese equivalent: “The customer is god,” said Ayako Sakata of Tokyo. Sakata works for the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

That is apparent at the daily opening of stores, such as a department store in Aoyama, a district near Tokyo. As Daimaru Peacock opened at 10 a.m., the managers and clerks gathered near the front of the store, greeting and bowing to the day’s first customers.

Sounds of ringing registers are mixed with men shouting welcome and thank-you.

Produce, meat, seafood and dry goods are sold on the bottom floor of many department stores.

Although the range of merchandise is wide, products are stocked in small amounts.

And most shoppers buy food in smaller quantities more frequently.

“Most of us shop every day in the evening for a small amount of food,” said

That’s because space is a premium in Japan where roughly half of the U.S. population lives in an area the size of California.

The lack of space by American standards is related to shopping habits. Consumers have less storage space, and stores have smaller display areas.

Many food products are packed in smaller containers or quantities than in the United States.

Most Japanese soda drink cans are more slender than American ones. In fact, Sakata said that larger cans are called “American-sized cans.”

“They’re getting popular,” she said, “especially among younger people.”

Eggs can be bought in packages of four.

And a children’s dairy drink is sold in small bottles of 65 milliliters, in packs of five.

In most stores, shopping carts and grocery bags cater toward buying in amounts smaller than in America.

Only the smallest of kids could have shopping cart races in typical Japanese shopping carts.

Hand-held grocery baskets are about the same size as those in the United States.

After paying the cashiers, consumers usually place their own purchases in plastic grocery bags with handles.

Often, shoppers walk or ride their bicycles to nearby stores, so they only buy what they can carry.

However, Washington apples are entering Japan at a time when a few of these traditions are changing.

Some shoppers, such as Okazaki and his wife, are part of a new trend. They shop once a week.

Okazaki said that since they both work during the week, they generally shop on weekends.

Another recent change is the landscape of retail, Evans said.

A few years ago, items were sold for about the same price at a small family-owned store and a larger retail store.

But now, Evans said, national retail chains are trying to sell goods cheaper.

“Big retailers are realizing their buying power and are starting to demand better prices from manufacturers,” he said.

Meanwhile, mom-and-pop stores group together in their own kind of union called shotengai, Sakata said. “Shotengai has some ways to make prices cheaper,” she said.

This interest in lower prices makes U.S. apples more attractive to consumers.

“The product quality still has to be high,” Thomas said, “but consumers are looking for a bigger selection.”