News & Views
The Japanese Guide to Social Commerce

According to a new book by Rakuten founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, the future of e-commerce lies in making the experience more hospitable and engaging to shoppers. And while pundits are popping up left, right and centre with opinions on what it takes to make an online business successful, it might actually pay to listen to someone who can list ‘author’, ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘one of Japan’s wealthiest men’ on his resumé.

Founded in 1997, Rakuten has since become a global leader in the provision of online services under Mikitani’s shrewd leadership. E-commerce is only one of its many offerings; Rakuten also boasts thriving online travel and banking ventures, and has recently acquired Kobo, the world’s second largest provider of e-readers after Amazon.

Rakuten’s differential factor? Mikitani likens it to a “bazaar” or high street environment, with a number of distinctive stores which happen to share traffic. Rakuten is “not like a vending machine, he told Andrew Keen at TechCrunch, but “more like a real aggregation of unique shops”. This “bazaar”, as he calls it, comprises over 40,000 merchants and 150 million SKUs in Japan alone.

Something else which Mikitani believes sets Rakuten apart from Western peers such as Amazon is the rich experience that each online shop front offers, and the level of engagement between stores and customers. This customised experience, informed by traditional Japanese attitudes towards service and hospitality, can be found in every commercial environment in Japan, he says, from fast food restaurants to high end boutiques. He is confident that technology has the potential to “amplify” rather than “standardise” this focus on the customer experience.

Mikitani’s book, Marketplace 3.0: Rewriting The Rules Of Borderless Business, is based on the concept that social media and e-commerce are, to some extent, converging into “social commerce”, or “discovery shopping”.

Web 2.0 brought us social networks and a greater level of interactivity online; Web 3.0, according to Mikitani, is “the next sea change”. This new generation of e-commerce will be driven by consumer behaviour and intelligent search, and, says Mikitani, businesses will live or die on the degree to which they foster engagement and discover with their consumers. He highlights smaller players such as The Fancy and Etsy as “distinguished vertical players” who fully grasp the importance of becoming not just a shopping destination, but a lifestyle-enhancing channel.

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