How a leading Japanese e-commerce platform tripled sales to China

4 min read

Chinese customers shelled out more than JPY 1 trillion on Japanese merchandise during 2016 via cross-border e-commerce platforms, and Tokyo-based marketing research company Fuji Keizai estimates that the number is projected to more than double in 2019 to JPY 2.1 trillion.

One of the fortunate beneficiaries of this phenomenon is Japan’s largest online shopping mall Rakuten Ichiba. Their B2B2C e-commerce platform global and internet services company Rakuten—which also operates the popular cross-border site known as Rakuten Global Market—saw sales triple in 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

The transaction amount in Rakuten Ichiba’s flagship stores hosted by JD.com and Netease Kaola has grown by nearly 20-30 times compared to 2016. Rakuten Ichiba has been the primary platform for cross-border sales and accounted for more than half of all international sales transacted through these various e-commerce platforms.

“Our flagship stores hosted by our e-commerce partners in China do not directly compete with each other. There are so many exciting opportunities available to further grow Rakuten Ichiba’s cross-border trade and we’re working very hard for our Japanese merchant partners offering high-quality Japanese products to international shoppers, to make this happen,” Mitch Takahashi, the Senior Manager of Cross Border Trading Section, EC Company at Rakuten told TechNode.

Chinese e-commerce players also picked up on the growing customer demand for cross-border purchase. JD.com launched its cross-border e-commerce platform JD Worldwide (京东全球购), and Chinese gaming company NetEase started Kaola (网易考拉), their cross-border platform, in early 2015. Rakuten Ichiba was quick to open its official flagship store on JD Worldwide during the same year, followed by its official flagship store on Netease Kaola in 2016.

Netease Kaola is not on the list of top 10 e-commerce apps in China, but Kaola it is now offering extensive brands from Australia and Japan on its platform. Kaola’s transaction volume from Japan is ranked first, followed by the US, Germany, South Korea, and Australia.

“We have a strong customer demographic synergy with both Netease Kaola and JD,” Mitch told TechNode. “Although our most active shopping customers are among tech and social media savvy younger females, we also have tremendous success with targeted products and promotion campaigns for the adult males and their specific spending habits.”

Cross-border purchase is ubiquitous

Top 6 selling products on Rakuten Global Market: Salonia products,   Natural Healthy Standard products, Anello backpacks, 白色恋人 cookies, Pearlyuumi accessories (Image Credit: Rakuten)
Top 6 selling products on Rakuten Global Market: Salonia;
Natural Healthy Standard;, Anello backpacks; 白色恋人 cookies; Pearlyuumi accessories (Image Credit: Rakuten)

“Now cross-border is becoming so normal. In 2014, only a few Chinese consumers were willing to make a cross-border purchase. JD Worldwide didn’t exist and Rakuten Global Market was the only place to enjoy cross-border shopping from Japan at that time,” Mitch said.

While Rakuten Ichiba carries a very wide selection of Japanese products, the official flagship stores on JD and Netease Kaola only sell some of these products. Mitch also mentioned Chinese shoppers are quick to follow the changing fashion trends of Japan.

“Chinese shoppers are very smart. These days, they know which products and fashions from Japan are popular and trendy, and are very eager to follow these trends,” Mitch remarked. “Change is happening so much faster in e-commerce. More people are now comfortable shopping online, not only in China but also around the world. They are enthusiastic and open to buy trendy new Japanese products from safe and secure online e-commerce platforms, such as JD, Kaola, and Rakuten Global Market.”

Learning from Rakuten’s expansion in China

Mitch Takahashi, the Senior Manager of Cross Border Trading Section, EC Company at Rakuten. Inc (Image Credit: Rakuten)
Mitch Takahashi, the Senior Manager of Cross Border Trading Section, EC Company at Rakuten. Inc (Image Credit: Rakuten)

Rather than entering the Chinese market full bore, Rakuten Ichiba wanted to take a gradual approach. They initiated its cross-border business e-commerce platform in 2008 in four languages including simplified Chinese.

Second, they allowed Chinese third-party payment options. In 2014, the Japanese company established a partnership with Alipay that also includes a special collaboration enabling Alipay customers to qualify for special discounts on their purchases.

Third, with a mission to deliver the best of Japanese products to Chinese online shoppers, Rakuten Ichiba opened an office in Shanghai in 2015 to support Rakuten’s flagship stores on a partner e-commerce platform. Rakuten Ichiba’s operation is still Tokyo-based, said Mitch. Customer service calls from China are handled partly in China, and partly in Japan.

Channel, product, and brand

Rakuten Global Market takes more than half transaction amount of Rakuten's cross-border in China. (Image  Credit: Rakuten)
Rakuten Global Market takes more than half transaction amount of Rakuten’s cross-border in China. (Image Credit: Rakuten)

Rakuten Global Market is now shipping its products to about 200 countries, with its highest sale coming from China, Hong Kong, US, Taiwan, and South Korea. Mitch says that there were three important things for Rakuten that helped China’s expansion: channel, product, and brand.

“Channel is where customers get to see the product. You don’t want to compete with strong local players who know the market and understand the consumer,” Mitch said. “Collaboration with JD.com and Kaola is doing extremely well. We’ll now expand our partnership to local media and content companies to increase the visibility of our channels.”

Second, the product is a differentiator for this Japanese player. Rakuten Ichiba in Japan is very selective to the brands that want to join their e-commerce site. They check the brand’s product quality, and only those passing the stringent merchant standards can open their online stores on Rakuten Ichiba. They not only have global brands but also original brands with better price and higher quality. Over 44,000 merchants in Rakuten Ichiba Japan have received a certificate from Rakuten.

“It’s somewhere between Taobao’s marketplace model and JD’s direct sales model,” Mitch noted. “The biggest difference from Taobao is that these online stores on Rakuten are not just owned by individuals, some are big enterprises with offline retail stores, and for online purchase, they work with Rakuten.“

Both for Japan and cross-border business operations, each brand has access to a warehouse that offers shipping and delivery logistics to consumers in China. Rakuten Ichiba operates a dedicated merchant product and sales management tool called Rakuten Merchant Server (RMS) that helps merchants with product inventory, warehousing, shipping, customer support, and product promotion management.

Many online stores at Rakuten Ichiba offer same-day delivery in major metropolises and next-day delivery to outside of Japan’s major cities. As for cross-border customers, Rakuten Global Express delivers the products to Beijing and Shanghai within three days.