I’m a little sad today to leave the friends and wonderful experiences I’ve had in Japan. In no particular order, I offer you some of my observations about the beef market here. Again, my heartfelt thanks to the Eisenhower Fellowship program for this amazing experience.
Safety is the price of entry
Sometimes cattlemen tell me that we’ve done enough work on beef safety—that we know as much as we’re ever going to learn, that we need to stop investing in safety research and telling our safety story. As a matter of fact, I had several folks tell me this exact thing right before the government declared non-0157H7 STECs as adulterants. Whoops.
You can argue about politics and trade negotiations that swirled around the BSE issue, here and in other countries, but severe trade restrictions in the Japan market for a decade hurt American business irreparably. I don’t mean that we cannot regain the market (better than it was), I mean that American companies and American beef producers lost critical opportunities in those years. Consumers here demand safe beef for their families, just like at home, and we must continue to give them the safest product in the world. My learning in Japan is that we can never, ever, ever (am I really quoting Taylor Swift?) shift our focus from providing the safest product possible. I mean, like, ever.
Just for Japan
Frankly, some Japanese women (who make more than 90 percent of food purchasing decisions) feel a little…well…squishy about U.S. beef. What do I mean? They say it comes from a long way away. They wonder if U.S. producers care for animals, or profit (Are the two mutually exclusive??). They wonder if U.S. producers really care about what they do, and the product they produce. Consumers here want the option of choosing a U.S. beef product made in America with the discerning Japanese consumer in mind. Producing beef that is “just for Japan” has marketing power with this audience.
Product differentiation plays a critical role in this market. Remember for about 6,000 years, rice has set the standard here for product differentiation (Tamayaka, 2001). With literally hundreds of brands to choose from (I heard a lot about Koshihikari rice and I’m going to try it when I get home), consumers here talk about brand loyalty passionately. They use brands their parents loved, brands their families love, and they carry strong opinions about differences in taste, regions, grains, recipes and uses. In an earlier post, my photo of the milk case, with nearly 30 brands of milk staring back at me, taught me that American products must have clear differentiation from others—and I don’t just mean our Aussie competition. We would be well-served to explain not only our difference from our competitors, but also to offer many choices, through the use of brands, to Japanese consumers. As one consumer panelist said, “Brands indicate the producer cares enough about the product to put a special mark on it.” (That was the translation of what she said anyway. Is it kosher to use quote marks when quoting someone whose words had to be translated for you? I’ll have to ask the AP hotline that question.) Consumers here like to have an active choice, and even a package, that fulfills the needs of the individual, including price. Let’s give them lots of American beef products, from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and even in the same meat case. Giving Japanese consumers more choices through American beef products (see Why the World Matters) means we share our bounty with them. We need to offer multiple, differentiated products they just cannot get at home.
Shopping as Entertainment
Many Japanese women work as homemakers, and they take that job extremely seriously. In a consumer panel, I heard from a woman who cooks different homemade dinners, at different times, for her children and husband, according to their individual tastes and timing. When asked, she replied that she enjoyed her job making a home and raising her family, and she would do the best job she could to keep them happy and nourished. With that attitude in mind, I learned that Japanese women approach grocery shopping as both a critical responsibility and an enjoyable experience. In fact, several members of the panel mentioned that they shop about five times a week and they look forward to it every day. One of the packer reps I visited with, who has marketed beef for many years here, said having and making choices in the grocery store entertains folks, even as they fulfill the responsibility of nurturing their families. In comparison to other areas of the store, the meat case may be boring our customers. With convenience store retailers offering 100 new products each month, Japanese consumers demand something new and innovative when they shop. Grocery shopping should be more like Disneyland, and less like drudge, he said, so customers rush to the meat case to see what’s new, what recipes they can try, what fun they can have. Let’s make meat shopping fun. Entertain Japanese consumers, and they will reward you with purchases.
Even though most women stay home, or work part-time jobs here, the number of women choosing to stay in the workforce after having children grows annually. Many women shop via the Internet – placing an individual order at 4:00 and accepting delivery at home by 7:00 p.m. Not only does this save them from walking to the store and hauling heavy bags, it allows them to order from the office and be ready to cook when they arrive home. Therefore, in addition to fun, convenience is key—but convenient products must still feel “homemade” to moms and wives. I heard over and over that women want to take it home, put it into their own dishes, and serve it like they cooked it fresh. No take out buckets or wrappers on the dinner table. Convenient beef products with a homemade feel that also contribute to a Disneyland in the meat case (am I asking for too much here?).
Beef Can Be Fresh, Seasonal, and JIT
We don’t often think about beef as seasonal. Actually, we don’t think about many products as seasonal in the U.S., given we can find almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world, for a reasonable price. But given that the Japanese consumer wants to celebrate seasons with appropriate food choices (see Fresh Thinking), perhaps celebrating a seasonal component of beef, or a just in time aspect that discusses our ship time as time to “ripen” or age to perfection, or promoting beef around an appropriate holiday has potential for us.
Packaging and POS Matter
When shopping the meat case here, I immediately noticed the lighting and the packaging. Particularly in domestic beef meant for more special dishes (shabu shabu or sukiyaki for example), stores trim beef into consistent sizes and shapes, place it carefully in the package and add a garnish for color. Meat managers display packages in neat stacks, aligned and sorted. Japanese women like to see this kind of care put into packaging and display—to them, it indicates that farmers cared that much too. Sloppy arrangement, bloody packages, inconsistent trim with odd sizes or shapes decreases desirability. Sounds simple, but little things mean a lot here and the attention to detail indicates much farm-to-fork product quality in the Japanese mind.
Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, USMEF, the American ambassador to Japan, President Obama or the Buddha.
Random Photos of the Day: