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Japanese undewear brand Tutuanna charts path to global domination

Interview - May 14, 2024

Amidst Japan's shifting economic landscape and global market trends, Tutuanna, a leading innerwear retailer, unveils its strategies for growth, emphasizing customer-centricity, innovative product development, and expanding international presence.

TAKAATSU UEDA, PRESIDENT OF TUTUANNA CO., LTD.
TAKAATSU UEDA | PRESIDENT OF TUTUANNA CO., LTD.

The Japanese clothing industry has reached a very interesting time right now. There is a weak JPY situation combined with the growth of inbound tourism as well as tax-free reductions, and this is making Japan seem very attractive on the international scene. Additionally, many Japanese retail brands such as Muji and Uniqlo have been very successful overseas, and tourists may take advantage of the current economic situation to take back high-end and unique items to their home countries. What are the key advantages of Japanese textile manufacturers, and what opportunities do you foresee your company taking in this current economic environment?

I think if I were to simplify the Japanese advantage it would come down to honesty. Japanese people are hardworking, and this shows in the quality of products produced; yet, the balance of quality to price is very good. In order to produce well-balanced products, people in this country try their best every day. With only a small headcount of staff, companies here strive to do their best.

We always research where we should produce our products, whether that is China, Vietnam, or other countries. Tutuanna manages its distribution network by ourselves, and we work very hard to deliver good products to our customers. This comes in the form of shouldering all costs and risks ourselves.

If you travel around Japan, I’m sure you will realize that the service you get in shops and restaurants is very good. Store staff are very honest and eager to please customers. The priority is always the customer, and every day we change to meet the customer's needs.

Regarding the recent increase in inbound tourism, we opened a shop in Namba, Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture in 2023. Interestingly, 65% of the customers at that shop are foreign visitors. On average, foreign visitors to our shops amount to roughly 2%, and our main customers are traditionally Japanese women. Honestly speaking, until now we didn’t really consider foreign tourists as potential customers, but with this new store's performance, we now realize that this is a great business opportunity for us. We feel that we want to open new stores that will allow more foreign visitors to gain access to our products. In order to promote these kinds of customers, we place the tax-free sign on our store windows in foreign languages. When we analyzed our customer’s data, we found that most of our foreign customers are coming from China. Besides that, many Koreans are also buying our products.

 

Japan is known to have an aging population, and by 2050, experts predict that the population will dip below 100 million, with one in three people over the age of 65. This raises many issues including a labor crisis and a shrinking domestic market. How are you reacting to this demographic shift, and to what extent do you believe you need to look overseas to ensure long-term business success?

We do understand that the Japanese population is declining, and Tutuanna sales account for only 2% of the domestic market. This means we have a lot of room to grow, and in order to open more stores, we believe the key is opening up new communication channels with our customers. In the past, we have targeted women under the age of 25, but society has changed, and therefore we need to shift our business model and go side-by-side with those female customers as they get older.

Marketing is very difficult. In order to target this different demographic, we are going to have to change the product lineup and the interior of our shops. This is a change we are currently pursuing. Additionally, we would also like to target men and children as well. By following this model, we want to become Japan’s number one Inner SPA (Sales and Purchase Agreements), however, we have yet to reach that point.

In August, we established our mission for global markets, and our mission statement is “Delivering joy and excitement to people around the world through innerwear products.” My personal mission is to continue to contribute to people around the world. Since we do have limited resources, however, we will have to prioritize where we place our efforts, and right now we are focusing on China. Currently, our sales in China equal around JPY 5 billion, but we are looking to increase that to JPY 10 billion. Ideally, we would like to reach this goal in the next five years.

COVID-19 was a difficult time for us, and sales did plunge. The next five years are a big opportunity for us since we can pick ourselves back up and attempt to double our sales in China.



The global innerwear market is projected to reach a valuation of USD 94 billion, with USD 38 billion of that valuation coming from Asia alone. Growth in this industry is currently being driven by demand for luxury nightwear with customers seeking very high-quality fabrics and intricate designs. With this growth in mind, how do you foresee the next 12 months for your business, and what will drive the growth of your company from your point of view?

The Japanese innerwear market has shrunk over the past 10 years to about 80% of what it was; however, we are now starting to see some recovery after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the current circumstances, we know that we have to focus on producing good products. This is why we consider opening stores as a vital part of our operations since this is our primary delivery method. Having a large scale store where we can provide products to customers is now a must for us, particularly for the domestic market.

We do have competitors in this market, but in terms of domestic competition, they are also seeing the same economic factors such as the weak JPY and the increased price of raw materials. It puts more of an emphasis on producing good products for clients. I think that inbound tourists will be a significant driver of growth.

After our expansion into the Chinese market, our next destination is South Korea as well as some Southeast Asian countries. Hopefully, the US and Europe will follow after that. If we have a competitive edge on our products, then I believe we can expand further in the global market.

 

You mentioned the impact of COVID-19 and that was very harsh on many businesses. Although e-commerce saw a massive jump during the pandemic, many companies such as yours are now trying to reconnect directly with customers by creating unique in-store experiences that customers simply cannot have online. How is your business adapting to attract your clients back to retail stores?

Retail stores are the core pillar of our business, and this was the case even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, during the pandemic, our sales declined, and while many other businesses decided to close their retail locations, we continued to open new stores. If I include renovations, every year we open around 40 new stores totaling around 260 stores to date. As you can see, we put a huge emphasis on retail stores.

Since our core products are underwear, people feel more comfortable going to a real-life location to see the product before buying it. This experience is very important for our customers. E-commerce is actually good for our model for customers looking for repeat purchases, but when buying a product for the first time, our customers really do prefer to go to an actual store location. The same can be said with legwear, and I think this comes down to texture. Humans cannot perceive texture over the internet, even with VR headsets, so touching something in real life is very important, especially with innerwear. Additionally, our staff members are very honest when dealing with customers, and they are trained to communicate clearly and precisely with customers. This creates a total in-store experience that has satisfied customers time and time again. This level of satisfaction is something that we really strive for in our company.

We have roughly 10 million customers each year, and that is customers who pass through the cash register. Using that information, we can conduct marketing activities that are targeted toward the types of people who purchase our products. Out of those 10 million customers, 3 million are active customers. This data can be analyzed to identify what products are popular among different segments of people, and using this analysis, we have increased our repeat buyer rate by 5%.

We do have a very diverse range of stock-keeping units (SKU) and frequently a customer cannot get the size of the product or the color that they want. For this reason, we will launch a new service next month. It will allow customers to essentially pre-order the product, size, and color they want, and that will be shipped to the store of their choosing. This service will begin in March 2024, and we feel it is a good match for our customer-oriented business. When we conducted a survey among customers, they felt that the overall in-store experience was very good and they particularly appreciated how well they were treated by our staff. One aspect, in particular, is timing, and many of us don’t want to be hassled by staff the entire time we are in the store. It is important for staff to understand the subtle cues that suggest when a customer wants help and when they want to be left alone. I think in general since our staff are well-trained in this aspect, it is something that sets our in-store experience apart from our rivals.


 


Your company has a very wide range of different innerwear, and it is widely known that manufacturing women’s underwear can be a very difficult and precise process. To start with, you need to find the right fabric, making sure that the selected material is comfortable, breathable, and skin-friendly as well as taking into account the elasticity and durability. Achieving a balance among all of these properties is challenging since women come in many shapes and sizes. How are you able to overcome all these challenges and produce products that best fit your client’s expectations? Which product do you believe to be your most successful design?

As you mentioned, manufacturing is very difficult, and since we have various scales for products, it is a challenge for us to control our inventory effectively. This is not a job that anyone can do. Our core strength is that we develop products with a customer viewpoint. It starts with meeting with customers and asking them what they require from innerwear. Listening to the voices of our customers is so important and it gives us a starting point to address their concerns. In our line of work, a lot of these requirements come down to fittings and making sure that the customer feels comfortable with our products. Fortunately, we have 260 stores now, which means there are a lot of opinions we can draw from. In particular, staff and store managers have input in product development since they listen to customers all day.

I would say that our product development cycle is quick. The idea is to iterate on designs and get them into the hands of customers as quickly as possible. We then take that feedback and try to get the improved version out to stores quickly.

Our most successful products are women’s bras, in particular, our Bra of Destiny line. This line combines current trends with a feminine feeling. In our manufacturing philosophy, the key concept is that good products must come first. Next comes a reasonable price. We want to provide customers with products that spark joy and excitement, but at the same time, we want those customers to feel that there is good value in those products and that they aren’t being ripped off. We pour our philosophy into our products and I think customers understand that. In order to achieve good value for our products, we have reduced our suppliers from 18 to 3. There was a risk in reducing the number of suppliers but it has allowed us to work very closely with the remaining three suppliers to produce excellent products.

When conducting customer surveys, the number one, universally recognized feeling that women wanted from our products is a feeling of kawaii, or cuteness. Women want to achieve this cute appearance for their breasts. Based on this feedback, we started developing our Bra of Destiny line back in 2014. Around that time, our products were around JPY 1,900 per piece, and we sold around 2,000 units a week. It was considered a good seller. With the development of the new bra, we decided to shift our pricing to JPY 2,500, and as a result, we were selling an excess of 13,000 units per week. It showed that customers were very excited about the product and that they didn’t mind paying a little more since they understood the improvements to the value of the bras were significant.

 

When conducting interviews with other key players in the market, we’ve always heard the importance of partnerships in order to develop new products or penetrate local markets. What role do partnerships play in your business model and are you currently looking for any new partnerships in overseas markets?

Our mission has never wavered from delivering excellent products to people around the world. This requires our company to expand to the global market. To this end, we do have partners in the Chinese market. We’ve left the job of negotiating the rent of new stores to Chinese staff since communication between two sides of Chinese people is much more efficient. In Japan, we produce products and control delivery, and domestically, we are also supporting the opening of stores in terms of construction and training of staff. In order to expedite the opening of stores in foreign countries, we would like to find like-minded partners that would help us to expand our operations globally.

 

Imagine that we come back in four years and have this interview all over again. What goals or dreams do you hope to achieve by the time we come back for that new interview?

As I mentioned earlier, we have a goal of becoming the number one innerwear SPA in Japan. To that end, we are striving to deliver good products to our customers at a reasonable price. That in itself is delivering excitement and joy to people around the world through quality innerwear products that exemplify Japanese kawaii characteristics.

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