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Walmart prepares to pull out of Japan

25 Comments
The logos of Walmart and Seiyu are pictured at the headquarters office in Tokyo. Photo: REUTERS file

"EDLP didn't penetrate," reads the headline in Nikkan Gendai (July 19). Er, come again? Is that an acronym for "Erectile Dysfunction, Long Play?"

Actually it stands for "Every Day Low Price," the slogan of Seiyu stores, Walmart's presence in Japan for the past decade and a half. Walmart, the world's largest retailer, announced it is bailing out of Japan. Its business philosophy of offering goods at low cost was not enough to generate profits for the 335 Seiyu outlets around the nation -- down from 341 in January 2017. Of the total now in operation, 78 are situated in in Tokyo, 60 in Fukuoka, 26 in Saitama and 20 in Kanagawa.

Walmart made the decision to acquire a stake in Seiyu in March 2002. In December 2005, it raised its share participation to 50%, raising it again to 95% in 2007. Two years later, Seiyu became a fully owned entity of the Bentonville, Arkansas-based corporation.

"When Walmart arrived in Japan, regional supermarkets were terrified that they'd be eaten alive by Walmart," remarked Takayuki Suzuki, an analyst of distribution at Primo Research Japan, who was formerly employed by Seiyu. "The general view was that they would harness the merits of scale and expand through mergers and acquisitions. They would grow their turnover, first to 1 trillion yen, then 2 trillion, and then 3 trillion."

Its strategy failed to materialize, however, and Seiyu revenues fell short of expectations, reaching around 700 billion yen. During the last calendar year the group barely broke even. In contrast, two other major retailers, Aeon and Seven & I Holdings, ended their first quarters of the current fiscal year (March to May) with record-breaking profits.

"I think there were aspects of the Walmart-style EDLP retailing that didn't resonate well with Japanese consumers," explained an executive at a medium-size supermarket chain. "It dispensed with advertising and circulating flyers that announced special offers on certain dates and just adopted a policy of low prices across the board. But actually Seiyu's prices weren't that different when compared with prices at other chains. Customers seem to respond more favorably to store specials announced on flyers."

Last February Walmart announced a name change, dropping the "Stores" from "Walmart Stores," simply calling itself "Walmart." This was done in the hope of shedding the strong image of it conducting business only in stores, "in order to better compete with net sales companies like Amazon," said the aforementioned Suzuki. 

Walmart has begun moving gradually in that direction through its acquisition of Jet.com in the U.S. and investments in similar online sales companies in India and China. On the other hand, Walmart has shed its investments in chain store outlets in the UK and Brazil.

Two foreign-affiliated superstore chains, France's Carrefour and the UK's Tesco, withdrew from Japan in 2005 and 2013 respectively. America's Costco (which operates 26 outlets) and Germany's Metro (10 outlets) are still holding out.

So who will be Seiyu's next owner? Don Quijote Holdings, Aeon, Amazon, China's Alibaba, and Rakuten have been raised as possible candidates. 

While it's all speculation at this point, some industry gurus have remarked that Walmart's shedding of Seiyu at this time might lead to a major restructuring of the entire retailing system in Japan.

© Japan Today

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

25 Comments
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I hope Costco doesn't give up. It's the only place to get a decent hot dog in Japan.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Between the headline and the first paragraph, I think the adult sensors missed a few hidden meanings in their translations.

Thanks for the chuckle.

Walmart prepares to pull out of Japan

"EDLP didn't penetrate," reads the headline in Nikkan Gendai (July 19). Er, come again? Is that an acronym for "Erectile Dysfunction, Long Play?"

2 ( +3 / -1 )

At least someone has a sense of humor. I like the first sentence also.

Good riddance to WalMart

1 ( +4 / -3 )

a decent hot dog

Isn't that an oxymoron?

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

"I think there were aspects of the Walmart-style EDLP retailing that didn't resonate well with Japanese consumers," explained an executive at a medium-size supermarket chain. "It dispensed with advertising and circulating flyers that announced special offers on certain dates and just adopted a policy of low prices across the board. But actually Seiyu's prices weren't that different when compared with prices at other chains. Customers seem to respond more favorably to store specials announced on flyers."

This is it, in a nutshell. People will try and pretend it's some weird Japanese cultural addiction to antiquated printed paper flyers, but the fact is that "every day low price" was just a slogan - the prices weren't actually meaningfully lower than their competitors. Seiyu mostly offered the same products as their rivals at mostly the same price, but weren't part of the in-group network. What did they think was going to happen?

garypenToday  07:04 am JST

I hope Costco doesn't give up.

Why would it? They actually offer a business model that is unique in Japan, selling products that are often difficult to get in Japan, and products which are available elsewhere in Japan are sold by Costco at meaningful savings. Have you heard something about them being in jeopardy, or are you just buying into the article's unsubstantiated fear-mongering that all foreign-owned businesses are in danger?

4 ( +5 / -1 )

As others have noted, Seiyu-Walmart prices are not notably lower than other chains and while they have some very-well located stores (Sugamo and Akabane, for example), they are shabby and unattractive.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

For a while they were selling 500 ml bottles of British beer for less than the price in the UK. Then the bottles shrank to 330 ml and the selection diminished. It's still Y200-300 for a broccoli though.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Walmart and other stores from overseas will never succeed in Japan unless they are willing to set up a totally different style of doing business. They have to create and maintain their own supply chain, and get rid of all those middle men that cut into profit margins.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

These companies have to distinguish themselves from the generic supermarkets here, perhaps by selling something different, like more imported stuff at reasonable prices. Tescos sold a few of their own biscuits, etc, but apart from that, it was no different than other places. Same with Boots (if anyone can remember that drugstore). And they both left empty-handed. I wish I could get access to a typical large US or UK supermarket here. That's the one thing that depresses me whenever I come back to Japan - the god awful supermarkets here - the prices and lack of variety. And the insane amount of noise.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

 It's still Y200-300 for a broccoli though.

Broccoli prices vary widely because weather changes impact the harvests severely. When weather is bad, suddenly it becomes very difficult to even acquire broccoli for the supermarkets and importers. So the price shoots up until the weather improves.

Most importers and middlemen make small to no profit on broccoli when it's flowing. They make their money during the weeks of bad weather, if they can manage to get any at all.

Walmart/Seiyu broccoli prices are among the cheaper prices I have seen in Japan, anyway. I will be sorry to see them go, and will especially miss the great (and cheap) chocolates from Asda in Europe.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Well Walmart may be down and out, but Amazon is doing phenomenal in Japan. I even buy things I would usually buy at Seiyu and just order from Amazon and if it is over a certain amount shipping is free. Amazon is the future and no meaningful competitors in Japan yet.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The truth is that Japanese don’t really like foreigners entering into the market and companies like this quickly find out that people at all levels from employees to suppliers to consumers prefer to shop at locally owned stores and often prefer locally made products. Of course exceptions exist but usually thy offer something special and adapt their management philosophy and marketing to meet local conditions. Call it pride in Japan or racism depending on your point of view. And by the way that is also the reason that all the chest thumping in the world by Trump will not be effective to counter these non tariff barriers that foreign companies face leading most to frustration and eventual exit.

Japanese consumers are probably the losers in the end but as long as that herd mentality remains, and as long as they are happy doing things their way, foreign companies will continue to face these obstacles.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Locally made products in Japan are still sold at higher prices than those imported from abroad. The bs excuse we are supposed to believe is because Japanese quality is higher. Japanese carrot is better than American carrot. So pay 5x the price. Delusional Japan.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Japanese consumers are probably the losers in the end but as long as that herd mentality remains, and as long as they are happy doing things their way, foreign companies will continue to face these obstacles

They're also very very fussy, which drives up prices even more because that tomato which is half an inch too small, or has that very small blemish somewhere will get rejected.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Japanese consumers are probably the losers in the end but as long as that herd mentality remains, and as long as they are happy doing things their way, foreign companies will continue to face these obstacles.

J consumers prefer quality above cheap quantity. Mentioning 'that herd mentality' is amusing when you consider the number of foreigners walking around with their external brains in their hands.

Mercedes Benz has no obstacles reaching their J customers.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Very disappointing news. The British supermarket chain Asda is owned by Walmart and own-brand beer sold at my local Seiyu is made by Shepherd Neame, a British brewer of good quality beer. It's reasonably priced. I also buy the Asda chocolate sometimes.

Waitrose, another British supermarket chain, used to have a tie-up with Peacock. I often bought their own brand tea, jams, instant soups, biscuits and the like. Good quality stuff and again, not overly expensive. Sadly that ended and Peacock was bought by Aeon.

Doubtless Seiyu will now be bought by another Japanese chain and will revert to selling exactly the same products at exactly the same prices as all the other stores.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

A lot of people would be happy to see Walmart pull out of the USA.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

To me, the only thing Walmart is good for is the "People of Walmart" web site, which I find hilarious. "Every day American lumpenproletariat clad in bizarre, revealing costumes" should be its slogan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Doubtless Seiyu will now be bought by another Japanese chain and will revert to selling exactly the same products at exactly the same prices as all the other stores.

The outcome of JEFTA may be that more 'unknown' products from the 27 EU countries will be displayed at J supermarkets and shops.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Damn. I do my weekly shop at a Seiyu near my village here. They always have British (from Asda) chocolate and nice beers. They are also not badly priced. I hope whatever replaces it is good.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Seiyu/Walmart never felt like a Walmart. Perhaps they should have imported some "Walmart Customers."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Seiyu is definitely cheaper than most other supermarkets, in terms of meat and vegetables. Many of the other products are on-par, but when you have meat & veggies in there, the total bill will be quite noticeably cheaper than going to Summit, Life, Maruetsu etc.

Really hope the new owner doesnt jack up the prices to match other supermarkets, so that they can put out flyers advertising 'sale prices' which is the regular prices they sell for now.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I hope Costco doesn't give up. It's the only place to get a decent hot dog in Japan.

My friend loves their hot dogs, but can't get his wife to agree to the membership fee just so he can eat there...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As mentioned I never found the prices much cheaper than other stores but their imported sweets and beer made it worthwhile to visit, especially in some of the larger stores with an excellent import selection. I also doubt most Japanese people even cared that it was owned by Walmart or what that even meant so I don't think "domestic pride" played much of a factor.

I do think the design of the store didn't do them many favors, most of the Seiyu I visited looked old and rundown, the one in Ikebukuro feels like it hasn't been updated since the 80s with poor lighting and a chaotic design that make it feel too narrow and uncomfortable to get around. Still though, I'll miss them when they go away and will stock up on their unique products from now.

The overwhelming success of Don Quixote does show that the discount and chaotic retailer has a place in society, the Mega Don Quixotes with full supermarkets do have competitive prices and sell some intereresting and unique items tailored to the local population like mega trays of takoyaki and katsu that'll easily feed a family for a cheap price.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I believe Sears in the US did this Everyday Low Prices gambit for a couple of years. They lost both customers and market share. They went back to advertising “specials” and business picked up. People will buy what they think is on sale whether they need it or not.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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