How I set up shop in Tokyo

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Robert Ettinger, chairman and CEO of British leather goods firm Ettinger, describes how he has developed the luxury brand in Japan, home to its first ever store

When he makes one of his biannual business trips to Tokyo, Robert Ettinger never fails to be impressed by the adoration lavished upon the firm that his late father, Gerard, founded in London back in 1934.

“The brand has become like a cult in Japan,” he says. “When I visit buyers and staff here, they know more about its products than we do at home. They study our website, the firm’s history, how the products are made – everything.”

The company has been selling its high-end leather goods in Japan since the 1960s, but the business really took off here after it was awarded a royal warrant by the Prince of Wales in 1996.

“The Japanese love high quality and reliability – and the warrant is a symbol of trust,” Ettinger says. “They really think a lot of it. Japanese consumers will inspect every product and expect it to be perfect. I think some western companies would find that hard to deal with.”

The company chose Tokyo as the location for its first ever shop in 2010. This occupies an enviable space in the refined shopping district of Ginza, near high-footfall stores Barneys New York and Abercrombie & Fitch. The firm’s products are stocked in 160 other outlets around Japan, where it has a notably young clientele, with “17-year-olds saving to buy something they consider beautifully made, compared with our typical customer base of 25- to 55-year-olds in Europe and the US”, Ettinger reports.

In a country renowned for its fondness for exchanging business cards, it’s no surprise that his biggest- selling product here is an elegant mini-wallet that can hold dozens of cards with ease.

Think globally, coact locally

Two decades ago the company entered a partnership with a Japanese firm in order to help it navigate a market that may seem alien to many western organisations. “It is still still our sole distributor and partner here,” Ettinger says. “This is very important, as there is a language barrier and our business cultures are very different. In terms of finding retail space, we are still very much led by our partner.”

The firm’s growth in Japan has been gradual, as he explains: “This is a country where things start slowly and build steadily – they don’t go up and down. If you have the right product and do things the right way, it grows.”

The company is launching a new collection this autumn and is also planning to “do something special” to tie in with the next Olympic Games, when “the whole world will be visiting Japan”. It has already named Jessica Mendoza, a young British showjumper with her sights set on Tokyo 2020, as its first “global brand ambassador”.

Ettinger advises British firms seeking a foothold in Japan to “do your homework. Ensure that what you make is right for this market. If you have the right product and do things in the right way, your business will grow steadily here. That’s the beauty of this country.”

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About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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