Retail in Asia


How Japanese brands showcase the ‘middle way’ between physical and digital?

A few weeks after Meta, formerly known as Facebook, released its ambitions for the metaverse, Niantic, the company behind the global AR hit, successfully raised USD 300 million to pursue its own envisioned reality. 

SEE ALSO : Consumer inflation in Japan is expected to be higher in May

The magic behind Pokemon Go, a game that enabled one to catch virtual Pokemon in ‘real-life’ was a seamless melding of technological novelty and satisfaction. This novel combination came from the buzz of seeing rare Pokemon on large virtual maps, with true world social interaction and geographical exploration. Excursions into unfortunate residents’ backyards in search for rare Pokemon aside, it was a blend of virtual and organic that brought about the best of both. 

When looking at this particular example, there is a sense of ‘finding the middle way’ – a very Buddhist notion that is also present in Japan. It could be that this middle way, as asserted by the folks at Niantic is the key to a less ‘dystopian’ vision of the world. So aside from people running around catching virtual pocket monsters, where can we see this middle way in action? 

Over the past few years, Japan has made an unprecedented commitment to digital transformation. The creation of a governmental digital office, the creation of My Number cards that enable access to a range of digital services online, the sudden proliferation of business cloud services are evidence of a push to finally overturn a largely paper-based economy, stamped with personal seals, the ‘Hanko’. 

But it is precisely at transition periods like this, just like with augmented reality, that we see Japanese brands that are either deliberately or not, delivering the best of both worlds. Whether by physical or digital means, a lot of these developments serve to enhance a sense of convenience. So there is no better place to look than the not-so humble convenience store. 

Any 7-11, Family Mart or Lawson is a hub, or shrine to this developing hybrid convenience. Self-checkout counters co-exist with staff trained with impeccable service rituals. Digital payment is now accepted, but so is bringing your pension slips for cash payment, after which you receive nothing more in confirmation than a stamped stub that you dare not lose. Photocopy machines are fed with coins, with which you can print out your residence certificates using your unified MyNumber card that can hold your data.

Convenience stores are places of dizzying choice. Large brands compete with a wide range of SKUs for their place in your fridge, stomach or pantry. But they are also places of meaningful choice. Sometimes complete digital transformation can exclude certain segments of the population – the convenience of a smartphone on hand may be a burden to those who have spent a good half a century without ever having the need for one. The convenience store enables this choice. Vending machines too enable you to pay either with your growing stock of 10 yen coins, your card or even your pre-charged train pass. 

This blend of physical and digital is present again in the not so humble ‘Family Restaurant’, diner style restaurants like Dennys or Gusto where everything is available on an iPad for you to order – but doesn’t dispose with the allure of the ‘Grand Menu’ – a larger than life cardboard paged work of art that tickles the taste buds in all its Salisbury steak printed glory. Staff of all ages, from the college part-timer to the Family Restaurant Veteran greet, serve and thank, adding texture to an otherwise economical dining experience. 

Looking beyond the convenience store and the family restaurant, we are also seeing convenience being delivered in the same way by other Japanese brands. Coinspace is a ubiquitous quasi-co-working space present at many major train stations or department stores. A cordoned off wifi-enabled space, it serves the need for ‘teleworkers’ who want a little bit less ‘tele’ in their work. Choose a desk, scan a QR code to check in within seconds, and simply check out and pay at either a machine or via a digital payment method as you leave. 

Beyond the worlds of work and sustenance, this blended approach to life is also hitting the world of art. Boss and Roland corporation in Japan builds some of the world’s most coveted amplifiers and analog guitar effects. That fuzzy rock tone on your favorite blues record might be a Boss pedal in action. But it costs a pretty penny to be building a complete collection. Today, companies like Boss have been developing digital sound prints that can be created, exchanged and uploaded to hardware so that you can instantly have your favorite guitar player’s tone, or even simply, your friend’s. There’s a sense of sharing, convenience and communication here that again, melds the best of both worlds. 

As brands and the people who create and engage with them continue to reflect on the balance between physical presence and experience vs. digital excellence and ubiquitous convenience, we will be increasingly seeing more and more examples of blended approaches to creating experiences, particularly in countries that are only just beginning to make the shift. The bits of transition in between also might provide grounds for inspiration, Japan as a whole being a great example. 

But rather than just learning from the transition, nations and brands will have the opportunity to build truly meaningful hybrid experiences from the beginning. Key to this is taking a truly blended approach, PHD. This is recognising that any experience involves Physical Elements – what you can tangibly touch, be enveloped by and interact with, Digital elements – ways of experiencing data that enable greater seamlessness or even impact that is not physically possible, and Human Elements – moments of social interaction that provide the things that only fellow humans can – a sense of warmth and intuitive connection. 

SEE ALSO : Japanese merchandise e-commerce to grow 6.6 percent in 2022

It is this ‘middle way’ rather than backtracking from commitments of complete digitization, or trying to retrofit digital elements into analog processes – kind of like clunky automated building entry ways that inevitably mean the ever-friendly receptionist or security guard that you know by name will need to rescue you anyway.

Author: John Corleto, Senior Strategist, Landor & Fitch

*Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed in the article belong solely to the original author and do not represent the views, opinions and position of Retail in Asia.