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Web-based distributor Virtual Vineyards has attracted a significant level of business from Japanese consumers thanks to favorable articles appearing in Japanese periodicals, according to marketing manager Carolyn Sproule. She says Japanese customers typically place larger orders than U.S. consumers, in part to offset the per-bottle costs of shipping the California company’s products across the Pacific.

While companies are understandably reluctant to divulge detailed marketing strategies, these entrepreneurs offer a few basic rules for reaching the Japanese market. One is to avoid creating Web sites with memory-hogging images that slow down loading time. Because of the high phone charges, “fast-loading pages is the Japanese Web surfer’s number one requirement for a compelling Web site,” says Clark.

Another key is for retailers to address Japanese buyers in their own language. “All Japanese take six years of English in school, but many are rusty in the language,” Brissman says. Bargain America has a Japanese-language Web site, and Cyberian Outpost’s Web site offers Japanese-language descriptions, including a frequently-asked-questions page and guidelines for ordering products. The computer retailer also includes on its site a translation package that converts English into a variety of languages, including Japanese. And Virtual Vineyards posts pages that welcome first-time visitors and provide ordering information in Japanese.
Promoting Web sites in print has also proven an effective tactic. Both Cyberian Outpost and Bargain America have used banner ads on the Web, but they have found off-Web promotions to be of greater benefit in reaching customers. Both have purchased advertisements in print magazines, including those that review Japanese Web sites, and have had even greater success distributing e-mail newsletters to customers.

Quality of customer service is another key factor. Brissman says Bargain America finds Japanese consumers even more demanding than American shoppers regarding meticulous product condition and packaging. Ataru Onuma, a Tokyo business consultant who specializes in helping penetrate the Japanese market, concurs, adding that Japanese consumers want customer-service centers they can call to make complaints, track orders, or get product information from a company representative who speaks their language.

Clark of TK Associates cautions that U.S. companies should be careful not to project the irreverent tone that works so well in reaching American Web audiences. “Japan’s Internet is, for lack of a better phrase, relatively pure and innocent,’” he explains. “This is largely a reflection of Japanese culture; there is almost no political satire on TV and other media, for example.”

Still, it’s difficult for U.S. businesspeople to avoid cross-cultural miscommunications. Last October, Virtual Vineyards sent out a Halloween e-mail newsletter with a subject line reading “Boo!” Some Japanese customers misunderstood the reference, Sproule says, because they thought the word meant to pass gas.
Finally, Web retailers and market researchers alike advise reducing confusion over pricing and payment mechanisms. Onuma points out that Japanese consumers are afraid of risking unfavorable currency exchanges when dealing with international companies, so he recommends that online retailers offer a yen payment option that helps customers immediately grasp prices in their own terms.

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