Photo: CBT Managers Haruyoshi Kinoshita (far right) and CBT Marketing Manager Ikumi Nakashima (second from the right) with their international team.

It was 2009, and Rakuten’s push into global e-commerce had just begun. The recent launch of Rakuten Taiwan had uncovered a strong demand for quality Japanese products. Opening up Rakuten Global Market was a natural step to offer the best of Japan to the world.

Rakuten Global Market is an e-commerce platform that allows shoppers from around the world to connect with merchants on the Japan-based Rakuten Ichiba, providing automatic translation, as well as payment and delivery solutions, to create a truly borderless shopping experience. The global-facing site is run by Rakuten’s Cross-Border Trading (CBT) department, who also manage flagship stores offering popular Rakuten Ichiba products on other major marketplaces around the world, including China’s Kaola and JD.com, and Korea’s Gmarket and 11STREET.

Global demand for Japanese products on the rise

“We’ve grown gross merchandise sales (GMS) about eight times bigger in the past five years,” said Haruyoshi Kinoshita, who heads up the CBT team. “We have about ten thousand merchants signed up to the service now, and it’s growing.”

Much of that growth is coming from neighboring markets like Taiwan and Hong Kong, but further-afar countries such as the United States are also demonstrating a demand for Japanese-made goods.

“American customers tend to go for ‘Japaneseness,’ really typical Japanese items. Japanese paintings, Japanese toys, yukata and kimono sets, bento boxes, even sakura-themed items,” explained CBT Marketing Manager Ikumi Nakashima.

“American customers tend to go for ‘Japaneseness,’ really typical Japanese items. Japanese paintings, Japanese toys, yukata and kimono sets, bento boxes, even sakura-themed items,” explained CBT Marketing Manager Ikumi Nakashima.

“American customers tend to go for ‘Japaneseness,’ really typical Japanese items. Japanese paintings, Japanese toys, yukata and kimono sets, bento boxes, even sakura-themed items,” explained CBT Marketing Manager Ikumi Nakashima.

“On the other hand, our customers in China prefer more practical items that they can’t buy in their home country. It’s quite common to see on the news here that people have come all the way from China to buy Japanese products from pharmacies,” she continued, referencing a recent tourism phenomenon dubbed bakugai (literally “mass-buying”) in Japanese. “Those are the kind of products that sell very well on Rakuten Global Market.”

“One of the best selling items in our Chinese flagship stores is actually Botanist Shampoo,” added Kinoshita. “It’s made by a relatively small manufacturer here in Japan and has been hugely successful in China because of collaborative promotions with Rakuten, Chinese marketplaces and merchants that have effectively marketed the brand to consumers.”

For visitors from China, the platform also serves as a convenient way to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home. “Hokkaido is one success case,” said Nakashima. “Tourists from China love the local delicacies and often order large amounts of them through Rakuten to be delivered after their trip. Hokkaido Omiyage Tankentai opened their shop in 2010 and have since won the cross-border trading Shop of the Year Award three years in a row.”

“One of the best selling items in our Chinese flagship markets is actually Botanist Shampoo,” said Kinoshita. “It’s made by a very small manufacturer here in Japan and has been hugely successful on Rakuten Ichiba.”

“One of the best selling items in our Chinese flagship markets is actually Botanist Shampoo,” said Kinoshita. “It’s made by a very small manufacturer here in Japan and has been hugely successful on Rakuten Ichiba.”

China to the US: Tailored Marketing

“Each country requires different marketing methodologies,” Nakashima says. “In China, for example, affiliate and curation sites have a lot of influence. In Hong Kong, Facebook has always been very popular, whereas Taiwan sees more traffic from blogs. In the U.S., search engines are dominant, but customers also make extensive use of cashback services like Ebates.”

But customer acquisition strategies aren’t the only differences the team has to take into account – seasonal shopping trends also vary wildly from country to country. “For America, we run Easter campaigns, Halloween campaigns… right now we are preparing for the back-to-school season,” she notes. China, on the other hand, sees significant market movements during Chinese New Year and Singles Day.

Empowering mom-and-pop stores to go global

For some local merchants trying to make their way in the Japanese e-commerce world, cross-border trading isn’t a high priority. “Customer inquiries aren’t in Japanese and merchants have to spend more time on packaging and shipping,” explained Nakashima. The extra work required for cross-border creates additional barriers to getting started.

“Hokkaido is one success case,” said Nakashima. “Tourists from China love the local delicacies and often order large amounts of them through Rakuten after their trip has finished.

“Hokkaido is one success case,” said Nakashima. “Tourists from China love the local delicacies and often order large amounts of them through Rakuten to be delivered after their trip.”

“Our team’s job is to make it as easy as possible for both merchant and customer,” she continued. “For customers, it needs to be very easy to find the items they need, very easy to make a purchase and work out shipping. For merchants, we need to provide a seamless, stress-free operation on par with the domestic experience.”

This idea has led to initiatives like Rakuten Global Express, through which merchants can ship international orders straight to a Rakuten warehouse in Japan. Efforts to provide a one-stop global payment service managed by Rakuten are also underway.

In the end, Rakuten Global Market is less about being an outlet for the established mainstream Japanese brands and more about empowering small Japanese merchants to take their business global. “We want to find those products that aren’t all that well known but are very good quality, so that we can develop and market them overseas,” explained Kinoshita. “We want to bring the best of Japan to customers all over the world. That is our mission.”