“Our sights have shifted beyond the boundaries of online shopping, to a world where the internet is the platform for a retail revolution, and that world is on the verge of massive social change.”

This was part of the introduction to Rakuten Chairman & CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani presentation at the Rakuten Ichiba New Year Conference series held in Japan earlier this year. The conference, held in six cities across the nation, brought together thousands of merchants and partners connected to Rakuten Ichiba, Japan’s leading e-commerce marketplace, to network, learn and hear directly from company executives about Rakuten’s vision for the future.

‘One Rakuten’: The groundwork for global ecosystem expansion

“We are aiming to create a global ‘One Rakuten,’” said Mikitani, sharing the thinking behind the recent moves to unify the brands of its many global services.

“What we are trying to do is create a global ‘One Rakuten,’” said Mikitani, touching upon the recent move the company took to unify the brands of its many global services.

“What we are trying to do is create a global ‘One Rakuten,’” said Mikitani, touching upon the recent move the company took to unify the brands of its many global services.

But for Mikitani, branding is just the beginning. “We also want to allow users to use a single ID across all of our services, to connect with us across national borders and make use of services like Rakuten Super Points,” he explained, adding: “The internet has no borders.”

The use of Rakuten Super Points continues to expand, both online and offline, making them probably one of the most liquid points offering in the world and a crucial part of Mikitani’s vision for the future. The issue of Rakuten Super Points in Japan has exploded in recent years, last year surpassing one trillion points (equivalent to US$9.3 billion) for the first time in the program’s long history. Super Points can be earned and spent across nearly all facets of life in Japan, from grabbing a bite at the local ramen bar to trading on the stock market.

E-commerce evolution: logistics, payment & customer service

As unification and building a powerful ecosystem were major themes of the day, Mikitani also laid out plans for how Rakuten-led innovation will empower the Ichiba merchants at the centre of that ecosystem to reach new customers and new levels of growth.

Super Points can be earned and spent across nearly all facets of life in Japan, from grabbing a bite at the local ramen bar to trading on the stock market.

Super Points can be earned and spent across nearly all facets of life in Japan, from grabbing a bite at the local ramen bar to trading on the stock market.

To build on existing strengths and address new challenges, Mikitani singled out logistics, payments and customer communications using data and AI as key focus points for the future.

With over 40,000 merchants offering a diverse number of payment options, Mikitani committed to unifying the experience for users, to provide a more convenient and intuitive service for all.

To address the challenges faced by a congested domestic distribution network, Mikitani announced the company’s intention to build its own innovative end-to-end supply chain management system, capable of providing a cohesive service to all merchants and ensuring more efficient and convenient delivery options for customers.

As Rakuten Ichiba has always been uniquely focused on empowering merchants to communicate their distinct strengths and connect directly with users, Mikitani also demonstrated a new chat service through which some merchants are already engaging directly with their customers. As this continues to rollout to all merchants on the platform, he committed to building its functionality through AI, so that basic questions can be answered through AI and merchant staff can focus on more complex questions, to improve on both responsiveness and personal customer service.

Commitment to take on new challenges in a changing world

On a recent trip to Shanghai, Mikitani took note of the very visible changes in local payment and shopping habits. “Our neighbors in China use online services as a natural part of everyday life. Apparently the only people who still use cash to pay for things there are Japanese tourists,” joked Mikitani. “People will think you are weird if you use cash for everything, while things like ridesharing or bikesharing are just part of the lifestyle. Unfortunately I think Japan isn’t just three or four years behind China (in cashless payment), but more like 10.”

“The world is changing rapidly and that’s why 2018 must be a year of commitment to taking on new challenges, for both Rakuten and our merchants,” he emphasized, also touching upon Rakuten’s recent alliance with Walmart, that will include expansion of the online offering of grocery and daily items, as well as Rakuten’s application to become Japan’s fourth major mobile network. As he shared his optimism about the future and the potential of the global Rakuten ecosystem, he referred back to his touchstone of Rakuten core values. “Our philosophy is all about empowerment – not only empowering consumers, but also creating a unique platform for the dynamic growth of our merchant and business partners.”