Terrie's Take 472 -- Wal-Mart Persists, ebiz news from Japan

terrie at mailman.japaninc.com terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Sun Jun 8 17:04:27 JST 2008

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A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd.

General Edition Sunday, June 8, 2008 Issue No. 472


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Yesterday Seiyu, Wal-Mart's troubled subsidiary in Japan,
announced that it would speed up its cost-cutting efforts,
and start directly importing around 100 house brand
products from suppliers overseas. The company will import
and sell high volume products such as candies, beverages,
processed foods, paper products, canned peanuts, and other
goods. Mostly the products will come from SE Asia and sell
under the Great Value brand. Currently house brands account
for about 5% of Seiyu's sales, and Wal-Mart plans to
increase this to at least 10% over the next 3 years.

There has been a lot of negative media coverage about
Wal-Mart's takeover of Seiyu, done in phases since 2002. The
company has been cast as pushy, uncaring, and heralding a
type of retailing that hurts small players. To be sure,
Wal-Mart is not alone in engaging in hard-ball business in the
sector, but being foreign it stands out more.

In particular, the local press reckons that Wal-Mart has got
it wrong in terms of market positioning. While cheap means
"good" to low-income populations around the world, in those
countries where per-capita income is reasonably high:
Japan, Germany, and South Korea, for example, cheap without
some redeeming qualities also means undesirable. As a
result, Wal-Mart has already received a thrashing in the
German and S. Korean markets and eventually pulled out.

Although it is also getting thrashed here in Japan, there
are signs that the company is far more motivated to stay
here and succeed. So much so in fact, one wonders if they
don't have a case of "fatal attraction" here...?

[Continued below...]

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[...Article continues]

First the background. Wal-Mart bought into Seiyu back in
2002 after Seiyu had gone into a death spiral. To Wal-Mart,
it must have seemed an ideal opportunity to secure a major
position in a country that it had been looking at for a
long time, but had not taken the plunge. Although Wal-Mart
obviously did its due diligence, what it didn't realize
until later was that Seiyu was not only suffering from
plummeting sales and profits, but also its reputation and
attractiveness to customers were severely tarnished -- a
situation that the company still has not recovered from.

In February, 2005, and 3 years into the partnership, Seiyu
reported an FY2004 loss of US$117m, more than triple its
expected worst result, and revenues slipped 3.7% to
US9.8bn. Analysts predicted dire repercussions for Wal-Mart
if it didn't fix the problem. Wal-Mart's answer was to buy
out the rest of Seiyu's stock, parachute in more foreign
managers, and commit Seiyu to the low-price strategies
that have worked for Wal-Mart in many other countries.
>From the outside, it looks like the new Wal-Mart managers
blamed the problems to date on Seiyu's incompetence and
inability to change with the times. They also clearly had
(and still have) supreme confidence that the Wal-Mart
low-price model was and still is the way to go.

The only problem is that now, another 3 years later, the
Japan operation is still losing prodigious amounts of
money -- in fact more than back in 2005. In FY2007, the
losses were JPY20.9bn (US$195.5m) on sales of JPY952.3bn.
This a pretty disappointing result, and one would think
by now that Wal-Mart would by now be listening to the "experts"
who are telling it to put in a Japanese CEO and play the
Japanese way. However, Friday's announcement shows that
Wal-Mart management has become more polarized in their
thinking and if anything is accelerating adoption of the Every
Day Low Prices mantra. This time around they are planning
to eventually bypass the Japanese wholesaler network and its
ability to leach profits. Hence the rise in direct imports
and house branded goods.

This continuation of a so-far failed policy is either a
very brave, or a very stupid move for Wal-Mart.

In fact, we think Wal-Mart is basically right pursuing low
cost merchandise, but perhaps not for the reason that they
believe -- which seems to be that cheap is good. Our take
is that telling the Japanese that something is cheap and
therefore it's good is a sure fire way to make them lose
interest in buying that product. Competing Japanese
cut-price operators have taken a different tack, in telling
consumers their stuff is good, then once the consumers get
to the stores they find out it is cheap as well. Thus, they
are doubly delighted, and the word gets out.

This is what Wal-Mart needs to be doing and probably they
should be starting with the brand naming. "Great Value" to
us appears to focus purely on the word value, or price.
Instead, Wal-Mart should try to find a second word which
modifies the term value to give it more... well, value.
Although we're not copywriters, "Life Value", or "Family
Value" would both evoke a far more positive image. If the
brand stands for something more, customers respond. One
only needs to look at how Ikea has turned furniture
shopping into a fun experience and is packed out every
weekend -- to see that maybe Wal-Mart should be taking a
leaf from their marketing book.

Anways, while Wal-Mart doesn't seem to have cracked the
right marketing mix yet, there are two major factors in its
favor. Firstly, as new statistics have shown, the recent
global acceleration of food and consumer goods prices is
causing Japanese shoppers to considerably cut their
shopping budgets, and to look for bargains. The rise in
prices is bound to continue for a while to come, as China
itself is now in the throws of an inflation spiral and so its
exports are increasing in price.

Secondly, house branded products are clearly the way to go,
and providing there are no "China supplier" scandals to
tarnish the entire brand, the acceptance of house brands in
general by Japanese consumers has been good. Japanese
competitors to Wal-Mart have been studying its business
model and are increasingly introducing house branded
products that are chipping away at the traditional names
-- particularly in low-end, high-volume goods. Indeed, some
of these competitors are already well ahead of the game.

Take Aeon for example. They plan to increase their Topvalu
product range by another 30%, or 700 new products, by next
February (2009). More importantly, Aeon has developed house
brand products that Japanese customers actually want to
buy, such as local snacks and salad dressings, rather than
generic cans of world-brand peanuts and candies, which
appeal to a smaller segment of the population.

Anyway, our feeling is that Wal-Mart probably has its best
shot to turn the business around in the next 3 years,
while a probable global slowdown is occurring and consumers
are forced to focus on value for money. If it doesn't, the
company will eventually be required by their US
shareholders to cut their losses and leave -- especially
now that the US operations are also experiencing anemic
growth and profits.

Lastly, one might ask: why is Wal-Mart so obsessed with
making it in Japan? It's been a very expensive exercise for
them. The answer is probably a overriding strategic one.
Although supermarket operator Aeon is still a US$51bn
(consolidated sales) minnow compared to the US$345bn
Wal-Mart, it is a company that has executed extremely well,
and is now swallowing up its mid-sized competitors in

OK, granted, it is currently choking on the Daiei deal, but
despite an overall downturn in the markets, the company is
still holding up well. Its President, Motoya Okada, has
said that he sees Wal-Mart as his main competitor and that
Aeon will take the fight to the rest of the world --
investing in companies as targets become available. Talbots
of the UK, is an example of his commitment. Perhaps not
coincidentally, Talbots just reported a big turn around in its

Despite the overall size difference, the fact is that
Wal-Mart earns just 22% of its revenue, around US$76bn,
from its international operations, means that Aeon is
indeed big enough to become a major threat to Wal-Mart's
overseas markets -- especially those in Asia and the
Middle East, where the Japanese image cachet couples
very well with competitive prices.

In our opinion, it will take Aeon at least 10 years before
it can really take on Wal-Mart outside Japan. However, the
company does have an irritating habit of doing much the
same type of business that Wal-Mart does, but better. It
has invested massively in world class IT systems, it excels
in bulk buying local goods and building house brands, and
it has maintained a squeaky clean public image, versus
Wal-Mart's rather tarnished one.


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+++ NEWS

- 20K+ electric cars for Japan Post
- Why did Apple choose Softbank for iPhone?
- New nanoparticle membrane for fresh water
- Jet port at Yokota?
- Speedo swimsuits likely to be OKed for Japanese Olympians

-> 20K+ electric cars for Japan Post

Japan Post has told auto and battery makers that it wants
to convert its entire fleet of 21,000 mail delivery
vehicles to electric cars starting this year. In what has
to be a huge fillip for the all-electric auto makers who
are concerned about whether there will be demand for their
vehicles, Japan Post's discussions present a very real big
bang for the new era of electric vehicles. Mitsubishi and
Fuji Heavy (Subaru) are due to release electric vehicles in
Japan as early as next year, and Nissan shortly thereafter.
Toyota so far plans to stick with hybrids. (Source: TT
commentary from reuters.com, Jun 2, 2008)


-> Why did Apple choose Softbank for iPhone?
While everyone knows already that Softbank will be the
first Apple iPhone reseller in Japan, we found an
interesting article on the Washington Post site that
speculates why. According to the article, the agreement
Softbank has is not an exclusive, and in fact Apple is able
to bring other resellers to the table. The thinking,
therefore, is that Apple is trying to stimulate DoCoMo and
get the behemoth to make a counter move once Softbank gets
going with iPhone sales. Apparently Apple went to DoCoMo
first, but the company baulked at having to share up to 30%
of the iPhone usage revenues with Apple. The irony is that
apparently even Softbank's Masayoshi Son is dubious about
the iPhone and thus it is possible that if iPhone's don't
sell well here -- after all, a lot of the functionality is
already available on regular cell phone models -- then the
iPhone may become a white elephant, and will certainly not
be attractive to DoCoMo. (Source: TT commentary from
washingtonpost.com, Jun 7, 2008)


-> New nanoparticle membrane for fresh water

Two recent breakthroughs in water purification using
membranes to filter salt and pollutants have increased
hopes that countries with water shortages will soon be able
to turn seawater and waste water back into pure drinking
water. The first is a pilot desalination plant in Port
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electricity -- about 50% less energy than normal. The new
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200-350 metric tons of water daily. The second breakthrough
was announced in mid-May, when Nitto Denko and Kobe
University said they have developed a new membrane which is
ten times more durable than current versions. (Source: TT
commentary from nikkei.co.jp, Jun 6, 2008)


-> Jet port at Yokota?

The Ministry of Transport has said that it is looking at
possible sites for one or more private jet airports in
Tokyo, to both facilitate the attractiveness of Tokyo as an
international business center, and also to off-load
non-core services from existing airports. Among the options
is some civilian use of the US Yokota military air base,
which the Tokyo Metropolitan government has been pushing
for. The Ministry had some interesting things to say about
air transport internationally. Apparently there are 22,000
registered business jets worldwide, but only 63 in Japan.
(Source: TT commentary from nikkei.co.jp, Jun 6, 2008)


-> Speedo swimsuits likely to be OKed for Japanese Olympians

Although the situation is humiliating for Japanese swim wear
makers Mizuno, Descente and Asics, the Japan Swimming
Federation appears to be ready to take the pragmatic line
that Speedo swimsuits are better and is set to approve
their use by Japanese Olympic athletes. This came after
FIVE Japanese Olympic hopefuls broke national records at
the Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center on Friday,
all while wearing the new Speedo LZR Racer swim gear.
(Source: TT commentary from mainichi.jp, Jun 6, 2008)


NOTE: Broken links
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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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