From media streaming, fintech and communications to soccer, baseball and drones—Rakuten is known for its diverse range of on- and offline services. But it all started with e-commerce.

The company first launched Rakuten Ichiba, an online shopping mall, in 1997. It was a time when the idea of shopping over the internet was considered almost ludicrous. By launch day, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani and his small band of colleagues had managed to convince just 13 merchants to join the platform.

But Mikitani was determined that his vision for the future of shopping would become a reality, and as use of the internet spread, Rakuten Ichiba underwent rapid growth. More and more retailers were won over by his passion.

Rakuten Ichiba’s first homepage was a simple text list of the site’s merchants, as shown on this historical display at the Rakuten New Year Conference 2019.
Rakuten Ichiba’s first homepage was a simple text list of the site’s merchants, as shown on this historical display at the Rakuten New Year Conference 2019.

Merchants have been at the core of the company’s thinking ever since—Rakuten’s original Ichiba platform would have never existed without them.

Today, the merchant community has grown from 13 to over 46,000, and is stronger, more diverse and more connected than ever.

Building a community

Entering its 20th consecutive year, the Rakuten New Year Conference (along with its summertime cousin Rakuten Ichiba EXPO) was designed with one goal in mind: to forge strong connections with and between those merchants. The world of online business rarely presents opportunities to make offline connections but Rakuten Ichiba has always placed importance on building trust by bringing a human touch to online shopping—in part through offline events like this.

4,000+ participants gather to join talk sessions, workshops and a variety of activities to share knowledge and learn new skills, including online marketing, product photography, social media and more. A strong focus is placed upon creating opportunities for merchants to network and forge real-world connections with others on the platform.

A veteran Rakuten Ichiba merchant shares his experience and knowledge with newer merchants.
A veteran Rakuten Ichiba merchant shares his experience and knowledge with newer merchants.

The event is also a valuable opportunity for Rakuten Ichiba’s team of e-commerce consultants, whose goal is to maximize merchants’ potential on the platform, tailoring promotion and sales strategies to each merchant’s strengths. While most online business takes place remotely, the conference brings merchants together in a space where consultants can share knowledge and build trust in person.

The iconic Rakuten Shopping Panda made its presence known throughout the event venue.
The iconic Rakuten Shopping Panda made its presence known throughout the event venue.

Getting everyone on the same page

The conference is an opportunity for Rakuten to show off the developments of the past year, as well as share plans for the future. Booths line the conference halls showcasing Rakuten’s many different services and technologies—everything from conceptual proposals for the distant future to real-world solutions merchants can apply to their online businesses today.

Merchants can attend a range of talks from CEOs of other industries, academics and even the occasional Nobel Prize winner. Rakuten executives take to the stage to fill merchants in on Rakuten Ichiba’s growth strategy and how it fits in with businesses such as Viber, sports marketing through FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors and financial services such as Rakuten Card and Rakuten Pay.

Helping merchants deliver

CEO Mikitani makes the most of the opportunity to interact with merchants directly and communicate his vision for e-commerce and the Rakuten ecosystem. This year, Mikitani shared Rakuten’s bold strategy to democratize Japan’s mobile phone industry, and spoke about the opportunities it would bring for merchants on Rakuten Ichiba.

For the e-commerce business, Mikitani had his sights set on a new challenge: Shipping fees.

“The main thing I want to impress upon you all today is how it’s possible to turn a weakness into a strength,” he began. “I’ll be frank: Rakuten Ichiba’s strength lies in its merchants. Its weakness lies in inconsistent delivery pricing.”

Mikitani unveiled his plan to unify Rakuten Ichiba's many different delivery fees and systems.
Mikitani unveiled his plan to unify Rakuten Ichiba’s many different delivery fees and systems.

At recent conferences, to address congestion of Japan’s existing logistics networks, Mikitani had shared plans for construction of a new logistics network that merchants would be able to utilize independent of third-party shipping companies. The next step would be to pass that benefit onto consumers.

Traditionally, Rakuten Ichiba’s delivery methods have been managed separately by each individual merchant, meaning shipping times and fees could vary wildly between merchants.

“Customers are telling us ‘Rakuten Ichiba is great,’ ‘the shops are great,’ ‘there are so many great products,’” Mikitani told merchants. “But they’re also telling us they want consistent shipping fees.”

Rakuten Ichiba’s big challenge for 2019, Mikitani said, was to consolidate shipping methods to make a single unified system that could be made available to users across the entire platform. “I’m sure each of you have your own individual challenges. But with 46,000 merchants coming together to tackle this problem, I think we can create a marketplace with sustained, significant growth at a level the world has never seen.”

Conference mugs featuring beloved Rakuten Ichiba mascot the Rakuten Shopping Panda.
Conference mugs featuring beloved Rakuten Ichiba mascot the Rakuten Shopping Panda.