As a self-proclaimed bridge between Japan and the world, ZenPlus is all too familiar with the challenges inherent in lofty ambitions. The e-commerce platform, which sells goods from Japanese retailers to people overseas as a business arm of Osaka-based ZenMarket Inc, has grown from the seed an idea to serve hundreds of Japanese stores and thousands of customers worldwide, all despite difficulties funding the platform and navigating the impact of the pandemic.
Today, ZenPlus provides multilingual support in 15 languages via ZenMarket. Its largest markets are English-speaking countries followed by Spanish-speaking countries and Russia. Customers can buy everything from clothing, homeware and toys to electrical items, sports equipment and car parts, but food, anime and cosmetics are the top sellers.
Still, the five co-founders have even greater plans for the business. Japan Today spoke to one of them, Oleksandr Kopyl, to find out more.
Why has ZenPlus become so successful?
The major reason is that Japanese products are good quality and in high demand. Japanese sellers are reluctant to sell abroad, afraid of the possible risks, even small risks, they might incur, as well as complaints. Also, our ability to communicate in the buyer's own language is a key factor. Many of our sellers aren't (always) great at speaking or writing English and weren't ready to deal with overseas customers [until they found our platform]. For example, it's not too common for a Japanese customer to bargain or ask for discounts, but in many other countries it might very well be; it would be considerably difficult for our sellers to try to field those sorts of specific requests if their grasp of the customer's language wasn't strong enough.
How has this Japanese sentiment changed since the launch of ZenPlus?
Before, Japanese sellers had enough buyers inside Japan; they didn’t need to sell abroad. But year by year the Japanese population is declining and there are more elderly people who don’t buy so much. Sellers inside Japan don’t get as many buyers as they used to and desperately need new buyers to sustain the same level of sales, so they are more eager to sell abroad. It’s getting easier for us to negotiate with them to sell on our platform.
How has the pandemic impacted the business?
When COVID restrictions hit Japan really hard, Japan Post stopped shipping to almost half the world. At that time, over 80% of our shipping was going through them, so we had orders we couldn’t fulfil filling up our warehouses and leaving us short of storage. It was a small logistics crisis. But we started dealing with other shipping companies and are now shipping things smoothly.
On the other side, we saw a big increase in sales. In one month sales grew 30%, which was very hard to manage. During our 2020 fiscal year (June 2020–July 2021), we increased sales by 80%. As people couldn’t leave their houses, the trend was shopping from home and almost all e-commerce markets grew over this period.
What are your priorities for development?
There used to be an international version of Rakuten called Global Rakuten but it got shut down last year. We want to occupy this space and become a leading platform for foreigners to buy Japanese goods from Japan. We will also target Japanese people living abroad because they want Japanese food, cosmetics and daily necessities they can’t buy locally. After this audience, we will focus on English-speaking countries, because of their high income, followed by countries that are very close to Japan, like Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. International shipping fees can be more expensive than the products themselves, so the closer the countries are to Japan, the cheaper the fees. Also, these Asian countries are fond of Japanese products, having been exposed to them for years. They are potential buyers.
What are your expansion plans?
We want to offer a big variety of products — as many as possible and certainly all the products you might find on Rakuten or Amazon Japan. When sellers compare us to other malls, they always think, “What’s the difference?” At the moment we don’t have the best prices because we are still not in the best shape in terms of prices and shipping fees, so we want to increase the number of unique brands that are not selling anywhere else except ZenPlus. One example is sake. There are a lot of brands that sell only locally or on their own online stores. We want to increase the number of such sake producers on ZenPlus.
What’s ZenPlus’ impact on Japan?
The more we grow, the more we are helping the Japanese economy. Cross-border commerce in Japan is a savior for many Japanese companies because it provides new buyers. When we generate sales, Japanese sellers are getting new customers and new sales from abroad. These transactions wouldn’t exist if we didn’t exist. We are happy to help grow Japan’s GDP.
We are working with chambers of commerce across Japan to get as close as possible to local sellers because we want unique products. Locally, sellers are happy because big platforms never come to talk to them. Mostly they have only brick-and-mortar shops so we educate them on how to use computers to register their products.
What’s the secret to managing a diverse team?
I was very worried at first about the international aspect of our company. From personal experience, when a lot of people from different countries come together there are problems in communication, especially when it comes to religion or politics; we have avoided such issues by recognizing each other's individual backgrounds and promoting mutual respect for all countries internally.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Companies like Tesla or Google are making a big impact and changing the way people live. I’d like to do something like that but it’s hard. I enjoy that we are slowly growing to the level where we can have an impact. We are increasing the number of people who are buying Japanese goods and are helping to solve problems for our customers.
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