80 pixels logoTo celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rakuten’s founding in 1997, Rakuten Today presents a series of special posts exploring Rakuten’s unique history, culture and achievements.


Rakuten Ichiba goes mobile

Rakuten unveiled Rakuten Ichiba for Mobile in September 2000. At a time when the vast majority of internet shopping was done on PCs, Rakuten Ichiba was the first service in Japan to offer a true e-commerce offering for feature phones. The platform was so far ahead of the curve that for several years after its release it accounted for less than 1% of Rakuten Ichiba’s overall sales.

In 2006, “Mobile! Mobile! Mobile!” was the main theme at Rakuten EXPO, an annual event for sharing strategy with Rakuten Ichiba merchants. Speaking at the event, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani urged the participants to prepare for a world in which mobile e-commerce would dwarf purchases from PCs. “The day is not far off,” he said, “when 50% of Rakuten Ichiba’s gross sales will be via mobile phone.” The trend towards mobile devices seems obvious today, but in 2006 smartphones were still rare and expensive, and much of Mickey’s audience — including the Rakuten staff members — must have harbored some doubts about his prediction.

Meanwhile, within Rakuten, Mickey and the mobile e-commerce team were setting ambitious targets. The team had initially presented fairly conservative targets based on market forecasts of mobile e-commerce growth provided by a research company, but Mickey insisted on aiming much higher. He dismissed the market research company’s findings, arguing that they failed to take into account efforts by Rakuten Ichiba itself to grow the mobile sector. “As Rakuten Ichiba grows, so will the market. Predictions that don’t factor this in are not worth discussing,” he said. Rakuten would not fight to capture more of the existing market — it would create the market itself.

In 2015, Mickey’s prediction of nearly a decade earlier came true: for the first time, mobile sales on Rakuten Ichiba exceeded PC sales. By December 2016, smartphones alone accounted for more than 60% of monthly sales volume, making mobile the main engine of Rakuten Ichiba e-commerce.

Mobile sales continue to grow today, supported by ongoing campaigns to increase downloads of Rakuten Ichiba’s smartphone app, strategic use of social networking services, and personalized marketing initiatives making use of Rakuten’s big data. The possibilities for mobile e-commerce are only just becoming apparent.

Younger consumers lead the way

In 2004, the bulk of Rakuten Ichiba’s resources were devoted to increasing sales via PC, and in comparison the mobile team was tiny. Things began to change when a team leader in her 20s, a member of the “mobile generation,” noticed that the spike in sales after payday (usually the 25th of each month in Japan) was preceded by flat sales for several days in the middle of the month. To boost sales during that flat period, even if just for a day, she proposed a novel idea: “Monthly Mobile Day,” a campaign focused specifically on shoppers using the mobile platform.

The campaign proved so successful it was continued for a full decade afterwards. And at midnight on the night of November 11, 2009, the mobile team got a sense of just how much they had achieved. Sitting in their darkened offices they watched as Rakuten Ichiba’s mobile sales for that single day hit a memorable milestone: 100 million yen in gross transaction value. The team cheered with joy. Their vision had been validated: mobile was well and truly on its way.

Bringing long pages to mobile users

Simple page design is a longstanding trend for smartphones, and many doubted that Rakuten Ichiba’s famously lengthy pages would work in the medium. But Rakuten Ichiba has always believed that long pages convey the passion merchants have for their products and business, as well as making shopping more enjoyable for online customers by adding a human touch — something like the energy of a bustling shopping street. Unwilling to forgo this approach on the mobile platform, the team worked instead to introduce greater simplicity and ease-of-use, tailored to the new platform, so that the regular platform’s long pages could be browsed quickly and easily on mobile too.