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Quality vs cost in Japan

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“Have you been to that Taiwanese restaurant out on Route 6? You have to go – it’s so cheap!”

I was pretty skeptical – in my native UK, there are many things you might say to recommend a restaurant but “cheapness” isn’t generally one of them. In the end, I was persuaded to check it out: the food was indeed very cheap, but also very tasty and it came in huge portions too.

“Cheapness Culture” is widespread in Japan. People with good incomes and very comfortable lifestyles happily discuss which “Dollar Store” equivalent is better. Customers travel for miles and miles to go to a popular Korean-style BBQ restaurant famed for the incredible quality and freshness of its beef, only to discover its prices are the same as any other grill shop you might stumble across.

Time and again in Japan, the Quality-Or-Cost Paradigm, a fundamental rule of “basic common sense” strategy, is turned on its head as “differentiated quality competitors” beat their competition on price, and “cost competitors” manage to sell low quality products at high prices.

What exactly is going on here?

Consumers Across Cultures

Let’s take a step back and establish some of my own cultural biases. In the UK, I think it is fair to say, people shop differently and in different places depending both on their income and where they see themselves in society.

Some families would be ashamed to be seen in a high-end supermarket for fear of being labelled “uppity” or “posh”, while other parts of society wouldn’t feel comfortable if their friends and colleagues knew they shopped at a pound shop. I don’t want to dwell too long on UK class culture, but even in relatively classless Western countries the same behaviors can be observed – as people move up the pay scales, their consumer habits tend to change.

For me, and many other Westerners, when someone says something is “cheap,” what we hear is that the product is “low quality”, and would tend to be put off buying it. There is also the social pressure of being seen as someone who is “cheap”, ie, miserly. In the UK, pound shops are often shame-filled places where people go out of necessity, not choice.

Not so in Japan.

Price Sensitivity

Let’s consider a short case study.

In Hitachi Naka, half way between Katsuta and Sawa train stations is a small ramen shop. It makes the best noodle soup in the city, and yet it doesn’t charge a premium for it – the price of a bowl of soup is pretty much the same as at any other noodle shop. Cheaper than some, in fact.

Why aren’t they charging a premium? If the soup is really as well known and well liked as I know it to be, then surely customers would be willing to pay a little more?

Apparently the answer is to this question is a resounding “No, they are not.”

Largely due to the prevalence of cooking-from-scratch at home (or, as it used to be known, “cooking”) and home economics classes in schools, the Japanese consumer are very sensitive to price variation in restaurants – they know a rip-off when they see one.

No matter how high the quality, an incredible bowl of soup is still just a bowl of soup – and people here just won’t pay more than a certain amount for it. So, ultimately, any cost or quality strategy in terms of staff, ingredients or production/process is restricted by highly price sensitive conditions present in each market.

Value Creation vs. Value Capture

In Western economies, when customer spending habits limit prices, companies will often compete with each other to reduce costs, so they are able to “capture” as much “value” back from each sale. This increases profits and so the company is able to continue to produce and employ and make further profits for its owners. This is a “Cost Strategy”, and such strategies lead to consumers getting lower and lower quality goods, and is the start of the dangerous path to under-cutting and price wars.

In Japan on the other hand, although businesses may choose to compete on cost, they frequently choose to pursue a “Quality Strategy”. The reasons for this are highly cultural, linked to a deeply ingrained artisan-ethic of “doing one’s best” (がんばります - gambarimasu). Unlike Western concepts of quality which are often linked to premiumisation and scarcity, many Japanese SMEs capture value in a completely different manner: by using quality to drive up frequency of use, loyalty and reputation growth.

This may seem counter-intuitive to those who are profit-orientated, but a more able business mind knows that cash flow is the life-blood of business, not profit. The margins will almost certainly be lower because the costs of creating quality are higher, and the price is relatively fixed, but what is the result? Large numbers of reliable, loyal customers, market share dominance, and reduced marketing costs as your customers do this on your behalf through word of mouth (the “Holy Grail” of marketing).

Now we are starting to see why in Japan, and indeed much of East Asia, there is no connection in the public’s mind between “cheapness” and low quality – “It’s so cheap!” is in fact exaltation to value – “Look what a good deal I found!”, “Look how hard they must have worked!” or “This must be really popular!”

In Japan we see that “quality” and “volume” are quite natural partners while “cost” competitors, with their larger margins, are able to survive with lower sales volumes (which are also inevitable as customer realize they are paying unnecessarily high prices). The psychic connection between Quality and Price is broken: that which is common and that which is good are one and the same.

Conclusion – Business Wins AND Society Wins

There is often a lot of noise made about “alignment” of strategies across different business functions, and this can make a lot of intuitive sense. However, we need to think very carefully about the connection between the value capture side of our ventures (sales) and the value creation side (everything else).

Quality/Cost alignment tends to be most useful when applied to value creation, but the assumptions of “cost therefore low price/high volume” and “quality therefore high price/low volume” are cultural not scientific.

Western companies often shy away from the pursuit of quality (despite invariably paying it lip service) because they assume that quality strategy means high price, niche markets, rare materials and products and low sales volumes. They fear rejection by increasingly price sensitive customers who are trying to make their pennies go further in this tough economic climate.

Japan is a real living example of how the pursuit of quality in value creation is totally workable with a high sales volume and low prices What’s more, lower, sustainable profit margins mean that businesses employ more people and that it is in the business’s interest to invest in their staff – providing real training and developing real skills.

Pursuing a quality strategy is a win for business AND a win for society.

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

14 Comments
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Years ago I was in a pinch and needed a bottle opener, so I bought a plastic and steel one at a 100 yen shop. To my surprise it was made in Japan and the darn thing is still in good shape. But here's a just published article from "The Wall Street Journal" about how those shop's business model will be challeged by the weaker yen. "Tough Times Ahead for 100-Yen Stores"

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323741004578415684063538120.html

1 ( +1 / -0 )

True, lots of restaurants in Japan are increasingly offering great food at great prices. But that's really reflection of the cut-throat competition going on, stemming from the prolonged recession that has left consumers with less money to spend. I'm sure the restaurant owners are a lot less happy with the situation than the armchair observers.

If the low-profit, high-quality approach pursued by Japanese companies is win-win, then why are so many of them losing-losing once they are forced to compete against the Koreans and Chinese in their traditional industrial fields?

1 ( +3 / -2 )

While you do make some interesting points, your article and your case studies are very biased towards only certain aspects of consumer culture. Certainly an 8000 yen melon doesn't really fit into your argument of not being posh. High prices in Japan are also considered better quality in many cases. The ramen shops and the Taiwanese are basically fast food restaurants. Certainly you have a maximum in mind of how much you'd be willing to pay for a hamburger, no matter how good.

Your writing is good and I can see you tried hard with this article, but it might be a good idea to chose some topics that have some news in them, rather than articles that try to prove a point.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Paul, Your made-in-Japan bottle opener will be more competitive with the weakening yen.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Too bad we will never see much competition or value for money when say buying land/homes, new cars, etc for far too much stuff the price fixing is the norm, food, restaurants are a bit of an exception & only a recent phenomenon.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Too many middlemen between farmer/manufacturer and the consumer, each stage adding its own profit margin.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I've never liked the euphemistic use of language to imply that cheap = low quality. Cheap should mean low price, that's all.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Not so in Japan.

One of those articles, I see.

I suggest that this author study some basic economics. Price is ALWAYS a factor in people's decisions. Everywhere. Throughout all time.

And yes, cheap can mean low quality, and cheap can also mean low price. Most folks, even if they're linguistically challenged, can pick up the meaning from the context. Usually just from the tone of voice.

I don't care how delicious or well known or super ultra unique a particular ramen shop is, if they raised the price, they'd lose customers. Or maybe that particular shop owner is happy with his workload / income stream relationship, and doesn't want to muck things up.

Doesn't mean he doesn't care about price.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Yes, for good or bad, I often think the market economy and capitalism are not well understood in Japan, along with democracy and the rule of law.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I believe this like Japan's polite culture are tied to a historical feudal system known as Chonindo literally the Way of the Townfolk an equivalent to Bushido the Way of the Warrior. Chonindo evolved out of Japan's Edo period growing middle class as a response to improve their social standing next to the samurai. It emulated aspects of samurai military culture including spartan thrift, discipline, virtue and loyalty but it was also a response to shortages to materials and technology due to its isolation policy. A very strong market chain grew out of the high isolated island nation as did a society of recyclers and exchangers so much so that virtually any kind of waste was used for something. I think this is where this attitude comes from.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

First it was a well written article but the logic was not really there. You can not compare a restaurant serving noodles with a great steak house that charges more because of the quality of the meat and the quality of the chef. One must compare apples with apples. With prices one must ask, is this a protected industry? Let us compare the prices of rice in Japan and compare the quality. Is Japanese rice better than any other rice in the world? But the price is cheaper because of restrictions, thus it is a protected industry. Perhaps the writer should brush up on economics and laws in countries before making the generalizations. But he did make a point that quality can not be measured by price.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

This article sounds intelligent on the surface, but when you think about it for even a second you realize the same thing happens everywhere, and there is nothing special or unique about the ramen shop in Japan that despite being awesome sells its ramen at cheap prices.

As a real world example, take any one of dozens of Chicago pizzeria that all sell great food or they'd go out of business because the standard of quality is so high, but most rely on world of mouth to get customers, and have fiendishly loyal fans. They, like the ramen shops in Japan, are also cheap because that's what the market dictates.

The author is simply trying to find uniqueness when it's just the way certain elements of the restaurant (and other) industries work.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

With online feedback low quality products will be short lived. I will not even buy most products until I check the feedback ratings. ==> not worth my time or energy buying something that will not work poorly or has issues.

You see alot of poorly made products that just end up in the trash. --> Almost a total waste for everyone involved and many cannot even be fixed.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

in Japan, and indeed much of East Asia, there is no connection in the public’s mind between “cheapness” and low quality

Can the author please get out more?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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