Japanese working women a new target for retailers

As the proportion of working women increases, the consumption of commodities and services that replace domestic duties will increase, experts say

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Many companies in Japan are increasingly promoting products towards working women.

The Tokyo-based major snack food maker Calbee's granola is a case in point. In 2011, the company, best known as a potato chip maker, decided to try to triple sales of its Frugra (a contraction of fruits and granola) brand to US$100 million. It did so and the firm then doubled that target two years later.

But its promotions team, headed by Yumiko Aboshi, a working mother, had their work cut out for them. As opposed to North America and Europe, where granola is considered a health food, it was seen by Japanese consumers as a sweet snack.

The team decided to market Frugra towards married working women, as they are the food-buying decision-makers in the household, their numbers are increasing, and they need to prepare breakfasts fast, Ms Aboshi tells The National.

For its sales promotion, the team adopted the strategy of making Frugra "the friend of yoghurt," as yoghurt is very popular in Japan, with annual sales of about ¥300 billion. In-store promoters offered Frugra with yoghurt tastings to supermarket shoppers. The slogan was, "A good thing in the morning: Frugra", Ms Aboshi says.

"This tells people that Frugra is superior to other breakfasts in terms of preparation time, nutrition [dietary fibre, reduced salt] and good taste," she says.

The promotional effort certainly bore fruit. Frugra sales jumped seven-fold over five years to the equivalent of about $266m in fiscal year 2016. In the past year, Calbee announced almost $100m of investments in two new granola factories, partly to supply shipments to China, where it is also becoming popular.

Other products are riding the marketing towards working mothers trend. Japan's biggest convenience store operator, Seven & i Holdings, is starting a food delivery service offering meal kits that take less than 10 minutes to prepare. The kits are primarily aimed at working women, women raising children as well as elderly people, the company's public relations officer Sandor Timar tells The National.

"As women's social advancement is accelerating in Japan, they have less time for cooking," Mr Timar says.



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The Japan branch of the US company iRobot, meanwhile, markets its self-operating vacuum cleaner Roomba towards working parents and those raising children. "People who do not have time for cleaning because they are working or raising children can use Roomba at any time, without needing to devote time or effort," says the iRobot Japan marketing group senior manager Yojiro Mochizuki.

Akira Kawaguchi, a professor at the Faculty of Policy Studies of Doshisha University in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, tells The National that he thinks that as the proportion of working women increases, the consumption of commodities and services that replace domestic duties will increase. A good example is the "chushoku" industry, says Mr Kawaguchi, who counts labour relations and gender studies among his fields of interest.

"'Chushoku’ is a new word that means prepared food such as daily dishes, lunch boxes and sandwiches, which are available at convenience stores and supermarkets," he says.

Ms Aboshi says that if her company's granola division, where women make up half of the staff including Ms Aboshi's boss, had been dominated by men, its success in raising Frugra sales might not have been achieved. "Opinions of multiple perspectives cannot spring up from meetings of only senior-aged men in Japanese companies," she says.

Japan Women's University's department of studies on contemporary society professor Machiko Osawa concurs. Also the director of her university's Research Institute for Women and Careers, Ms Osawa tells The National that as women are the main household purchasing consumers in Japan, they have a better grasp of consumers' mindsets when they undertake marketing activities.

"We are now at a time when experiences such as child rearing become a plus even when doing business, so I think that women's success is to be expected" in business, she says.