Rakuten eyes growth

07 February 2012

TOKYO: Rakuten, the leading ecommerce site in Japan, is seeking to take on Amazon around the world, and to set an example for struggling brand owners in its home market.

The company's Rakuten Ichiba online retail platform is currently the biggest in Japan, with over 37,000 merchants offering items from noodles and pet food to women's fashion and used car parts.

Among the tactics the firm has taken to differentiate its ecommerce service is attempting to give the purchase process a "human face", Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten's founder, told the Guardian.

More specifically, Rakuten Ichiba tries to be a "blog with a shopping cart attached" to encourage interaction between retailers and consumers, rather than merely acting as a "gigantic vending machine", he said.

In the first instance, Rakuten's expansion plans are typified by its Kobo ereader, which will be open source, unlike Amazon's Kindle Fire, where tighter limitations are in place on developers.

Mikitani said: "There are lots of companies that don't like Amazon because they want to control and dominate everything. We are more alliance-oriented … We want to establish relationships with retailers."

"Japanese companies cannot keep doing what they have been doing," he added. "We are going to be very aggressive. You need to be agile and have vision."

As a result, the firm is trying to create a structure and values – or a "way" of working – that can be replicated internationally. It has adopted English as its official language to aid this strategy.

Mikitani said: "We don't push out a Japanese model to our subsidiaries. The lack of global vision is partly coming from the language ... We need to change the mindset of every single Japanese person."

Rakuten's corporate handbook thus contains guidelines saying employees should clean their offices – "even chair legs" –  together, wear ID badges on the "left side of your chest" and always "greet each other enthusiastically".

The organisation has also expanded overseas, purchasing Play.com, a UK online retailer, as well as Kobo, a Canadian ebook manufacturer, for £200m.

Mikitani suggested ailing electronics groups like Sony and Panasonic may soon pursue similar models to his own company. "I think [the electronics companies] will come back. They will wake up," he said. "If we succeed, then they will follow us."

Data sourced from the Guardian; additional content by Warc staff