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Meeting Diverse Needs and Embracing Genderless Options through Swimwear Lines

Interview - May 27, 2024

The interview highlights Footmark Corporation's strategic adaptations to current market trends and demographic shifts. The company's customer-first philosophy has helped it thrive both domestically and globally, despite a niche focus. 

KAORU SANBE, PRESIDENT OF FOOTMARK CORPORATION
KAORU SANBE | PRESIDENT OF FOOTMARK CORPORATION

Right now is a pivotal time for Japanese makers. Policies like the US Inflation Reduction Act are forcing corporations to diversify their supply chains for reliability and to reduce country risks, with nations such as China. Japan is known for its reliability, advanced technology, and a weak JPY, so for the time being Japan has never been a more cost-effective option. This means that Japanese firms have an opportunity to expand their existing global market shares. Do you agree with this sentiment, and in your opinion, what do you believe to be the advantages of Japanese companies in this current macroeconomic environment?

To be very honest, it is difficult for me to comment on the macro perspective since we are mainly focused on the domestic market. Even within the domestic market, we are in a very niche field, focusing on each customer. Our company philosophy is customer first, and we always look to prioritize the needs and wants of the customers. We try to do our best to respond every time to their needs flexibly, so perhaps the compilation of this experience has given us an advantage both in the domestic and global markets, however, since I’ve never compared ourselves to other companies in other regions it is hard for me to comment.

 

After the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies struggled to recover, and as a result, there is a heavy investment in e-commerce (EC) sales channels. How has Footmark Corporation adapted to take advantage of EC platforms to better cater your services to your customers?

It is true that since COVID-19 the distribution channels have altered, and as a result, EC has become a very important means of conducting sales. For our company, the target is to increase our EC business to account for 10% of our overall sales. Having said that, retail stores and person-to-person sales, especially in the field of B2B business, are still a pillar of our sales. EC actually conflicts with part of our direct sales, so we need to find ways that would not result in divisions competing with each other, yet still have growth.

 

Japan is known worldwide for its aging population, and experts are now predicting that by 2050 the population of Japan will dip below 100 million due to low birth rates. This has created a labor crisis as well as a shrinking domestic market. From your perspective, what have been some of the challenges and opportunities you’ve seen as a result of this demographic shift, and how are you reacting to these changes?

We are one of the earliest companies to realize the importance of nursing care and we have the copyright to the word kaigo, which means nursing care in Japanese. We converted our products to the nursing care field through a particular product that was originally intended as a diaper cover. We have taken that technology and instead created diaper covers for adults. Footmark started as a baby diaper company, but we were able to take the same material and make bathing suits, and from that we evolved to create backpacks for children. All of this has led us to nursing care and I feel we realized those needs at the earliest point.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, our main focus is on Japan, but we are also looking to expand overseas. An example is an underwear product that can hold urine in a container. This product was launched in April 2024 as a joint venture with our company, which manufactures colostomy bags.

In the nursing care field diapers are commonly used but for the caregiver, changing diapers is a burden. At the same time, for the patient, wearing diapers infringes on their dignity. Converting this into underwear with a container frees the caregiver as well as the patient. I had surgery last year and tried this underwear product and can say that it works well.


Contact Bladder TIMESHIFT" is a urination care product that feels like a part of your body.


While Japan is the world’s first super-aged society, countries like Korea, Germany, Italy, Greece, and China are not far behind. In terms of your company, which countries do you foresee yourself focusing on for these types of products?

If we are talking about proximity to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia will be our target, but we are open to any other country after we release our product in April 2024. Ideally, we are looking to first focus on the Japanese market which is a super-aging society with our underwear products which provide comfort to patients, and ease to caregivers.

I strongly believe that solving the aging issue in Japan will act as a model case for the world as a whole.

 

In the competitive world of swimming, fractions of a second will make the difference. Hydrodynamics is key to the performance of an athlete, and we understand that Footmark offers a lineup of competitive swimwear. We were curious how you can strike a balance between performance and adhesion to current regulations.

Our lineup of swimwear you mentioned was developed over 15 years ago and is now part of our swimming school series for competitive swimming. We now have several pillars in the bathing suit field. The first is regarding school swimming uniforms. With these products we do benefit from the fact that swimming is a mandatory education, therefore every child needs to have some sort of swimming uniform. We also have what we call our senior fitness-type swimwear. Both of these types are provided under the Footmark branding. Last year we launched a new type of product that has been widely featured in the media. This new product is a genderless type of swimwear for both boys and girls. This has become especially popular among middle school boys and girls since at that age they become more conscious about their body shape and would rather hide during swimming class. We are trying to provide a lineup of products that can meet varying needs for swimming.



You mentioned that your new product is unisex. Are you planning to promote this product overseas?

For overseas sales of our swimming suit, Southeast Asia is our current target. We have a factory in Cambodia and established a sales office there also. Cambodia is also in a prime location in the center of Asian countries so from there we want to penetrate Vietnam, Thailand, and other neighboring countries.

Speaking of Vietnam, there is a big Japanese supermarket group called AEON, and there they have a Japanese sports club. Traditionally there are swimming clubs where children can go and learn about swimming. This sort of model has led to the development of Olympic athletes. We want to provide swimsuits in Asian countries and contribute to the development of their own Olympic swimming teams.

 

Statistics indicate that accidents in educational swimming settings are unfortunately very common, and sadly 390 kids under the age of 14 suffer from drowning in swimming pools every year. To tackle this Footmark has developed reflective swimming suits and gear that keep the body floating for longer. How are you able to comply with safety standards and regulations for educational swimming settings?

Our products are double-layered and you can remove the buoyancy cushion once you can swim. One product we have is our 25 In A Crawl, and the concept is to help people learn to crawl 25 meters within 10 hours. This bathing suit has 8 buoyancy sheets mounted on the surface and you can change the layers depending on how good you become at swimming. The key to swimming is staying horizontal in the water to achieve floating capabilities. Letting children experience the sensation of floating enhances their ability to swim.

Learning to swim in Japan is particularly important. The country is prone to many natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. We developed this product just after the Fukushima Tsunami Disaster so that we can change the mindset of children and make sure that they do not fear the ocean. By having the ability to swim they could survive a tsunami. The ability to swim is necessary in many situations, not only in swimming competitions.

 

What age group is the 25 In A Crawl designed for?

Elementary school children, from first to sixth grade.

 

Footmark traces its history back to 1946, and you provide a wide array of products that cater to a wide range of applications. How are you able to adapt to market changes and customer needs considering you handle such a wide range, especially when compared to companies with a narrower focus?

Every year we handle about 3,000 items and among them, 1,000 are renewed every year. We have a unique company structure and in our current HQ, we have about 58 staff members and about 15 different teams. Each team has its own budgeting and financial scheme so that it can respond to the needs of the client. I believe this microstructure has allowed the company to operate as it has for 78 years now.

 

You mentioned earlier the desire to enter the field of children’s backpacks. Traditional Japanese school books are known to be very heavy, thus resulting in a lot of back pain for children. In January 2024 you released your Rakusak Junior, which emphasizes the bag’s characteristic to minimize the backpack’s weight. Can you tell us more about this school bag and how it is superior to conventional school backpacks?

LUXAC JUNIOR has many features, most of which focus on easing the burden on children carrying the backpack. First, it uses a patented system that allows textbooks to be stowed stably inside the bag. It also has a rain cover and straps with 3D-designed shoulder pads. Inside, there is a pocket for a tablet.

Traditionally there is a culture in Japan where boys and girls need to carry a heavy leather, handmade back and those can cost between JPY 50,000 to JPY 100,000 or around USD 350 to USD 700. Although it is not a luxury brand bag, it is really expensive, meaning there is a huge burden on parents. Using a cloth-based functional alternative is an option that we are now providing. In 2023 our bags were featured, and we are in the running for an award in 2024 for Best Hit Product award.

The idea of using these heavy leather backpacks is almost a solidified notion in Japanese society, so through our products, we want to offer parents a real alternative option that doesn’t compromise on the features it offers to the child users. Together with other companies in the field, we believe we can change the mindset of Japanese people. We believe that to provide solutions that are appreciated we need to tackle modern issues children face.


Light school bag "RAKUSACKJUNIOR" developed for elementary school students.


Footmark has been expanding its market presence in Southeast Asia since 2022. Are you looking to broaden your scope of international stores in other locations besides Southeast Asia?

As you may know, Japanese culture revolves around helping each other and doing better. This has been a driving force of society and engrained in the DNA of our company. My predecessor built a house right after WWII and provided accommodation to those who lost their homes to the war. In Cambodia we want to do the same, help each other to reach greater goals. This could come in the backpacks we provide, or even the swimwear that can help local athletes reach greatness.

 

Imagine that we come back on the very last day of your presidency and have this interview again. What goals or dreams would you like to achieve by the time you are ready to hand the baton onto the next generation of Footmark executives?

Our company’s motto is “Anyone can create products.” As a president but also a staff member of the company I want to continuously invent new products so hopefully by the time I retire I will have the opportunity to see more of our products widely used in society. 

 


For more details, explore their website at https://www.footmark.co.jp/en/ 

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