SELLING TO JAPANES E BEGINS AT HOME

U.S. companies complain bitterly at supposed barriers erected by the Japanese government against U.S.-made products. Why, then, are U.S. companies unable or unwilling to sell to the Japanese even when there are no government barriers at all?

In the New York City area alone, there are approximately 100,000 Japanese nationals on temporary assignment. By Japanese standards, they are pioneers. They are members of the first generation that has sent substantial numbers of Japanese citizens to live abroad. By any American standards, they should be considered a rich market, ripe for targeting: Single males and young families headed by professional or managerial personnel. They have come 9,000 miles to live and work, bringing with them few of their possessions. They are easily and cheaply reached, through the business press, Japanese-language newspapers and even Japanese-language television.These Japanese want quality, and they can afford to have it. In their search for the "right brands" and the "right look," the Japanese out-Yuppy the native American breed. Get them used to good U.S. products here, and you'll do more than make an immediate profit. They'll spread the word when they return home. Eventually, then, the market for U.S. products should grow in Japan as well.

With few exceptions, however, U.S. companies have not reached out to the Japanese communityhere. Last fall, I surveyed 300 Japanese expatriates living in the New York area to find out why, and to determine their attitudes toward U.S. goods and services. More than 200 completed the detailed, 130-question survey, which was distributed among employees of Japanese companies and their

families.

The response confirmed the up-scale nature of the market: Average family income $46,250, average age 32, at least one child (typically under 10 years old), and at least two years of college. Two-thirds of the respondents were male, and almost all of the men had at least four years of college. Half the respondents had been in the United States at least two-and-a-half years.

The sample could not be made perfectly representative of all Japanese living in the New York City area. But the figures do agree with an earlier study done for the U.S. Nippon Communications Network, and with enrollment patterns in New Jersey schools. Thus, it is close to representative.

The popular impression is that Japanese in Japan patronize small shops, developing close ties with particular retailers. The popular impression is that Japanese in Japan are very conscious about country of origin, and will avoid foreign goods. The popular impression is that the Japanese economy is strongly oriented toward services, and that Americans cannot compete with thousands of years of tradition in the arts of politeness and saving face.

My survey suggests that popular impressions do not fit the typical Japanese young professional, at least not in the United States. Price and personal experience are the most important factors the Japanese expatriates cite when deciding on a purchase. The manufacturer's reputation is next, and the reputation of the retailer a distant fourth. Nation of origin was the least important factor of all. It was cited only two-thirds as often as price.

In fact, when it comes to country of origin, the expatriate community (like American expatriates, by the way) was quite internationally minded. One respondent even asked about whether tofu (bean cake) should be considered a "Japanese" or "American" product because it is made mainly from U.S.-grown soy beans.

Young Japanese professionals say they arrive eager to try U.S. products. With little U.S. advertising aimed at them, they have to search out those products pretty much on their own.

What U.S. products do they like? U.S liquor, paper goods, meats, jewelry and, to some extent, clothes. Nike shoes, in true Yuppy fashion, are especially popular among Japanese here (and in Japan, for that matter). The longer they stay, the more likely they are to be satisfied with the U.S. products they have purchased, and the more likely they are to be amazed at the quality and diversity of U.S. services such as child care, medicine and leisure services.

The rise in awareness of U.S. goods is small, however, and dissatisfaction with one product, cars, is astoundingly high among survey respondents. The negative attitude toward U.S. cars increases directly with the length of time spent in the United States. The problem is really quite simple. The Japanese arrives here and for the first time is able to buy a big car (totally unsuitable in Japan, as many streets are too narrow).

Problems soon begin. A window leaks, the transmission makes noise. And so, the Japanese executive takes it to the dealer's service bay. First he is told he needs an appointment...three days from now. Then the repair is not under warranty, and, besides, the part is not available, and anyway he, not the factory, caused the problem.

On top of this, the mechanic is rude and abrasive, at least by Japanese standards. In one case cited, a Lincoln Continental was in the shop more in the first six months of ownership than it was out. This case, in spite of the Japanese aversion to lawsuits, ended up in court before being settled in the family's favor. Not only won't he ever buy another U.S. car, but the word-of- mouth damage in the New York-area Japanese population and among his contacts back in Japan is tremendous.

What can U.S. companies do? Advertise in local Japanese media, for one thing. (The ads can be in English as long as they are well illustrated.) Ninety percent of the respondents watch Japanese-language television in the evening. They see ads for Pan Am and Northwest Airlines, but not for any other U.S. goods and services. Makers of jewelry, brand-name clothing, convenience foods and quality decorative items are missing the boat.

Aim at women. The majority of purchases in Japanese families are made by the wife. Significant efforts must be made to improve her perception of U.S. products such as appliances, clothes and furniture (Japanese tend to have shorter legs in proportion to body height than do Americans, for example). Effective and prompt after-sales service is essential to improved quality perception in this market.

Finally, U.S. automakers should blame their surly, unresponsive local dealers more than any Japanese government directives, for an intense dislike of the Japanese toward the only car they will own while in the United States - a U.S. car. Come to think of it, reforming local service might help attract U.S. buyers, too.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe