It may be more than 100 years old, but Japanese eyewear business Tanaka Optical has its sights set on finally going international and a few weeks ago, it opened its first overseas store in Singapore. Here Salena Watanabe, CEO of Tanaka Optical‘s newly created FLO Optics entity in Singapore, discusses the business’ global expansion, its omnichannel strategy — and how it survived the World War II bombing of Hiroshima. Inside Retail: Can you tell us about the Tanaka Optical story? Salena
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Salena Watanabe: Tanaka Optical was founded in 1913 in the western Japan city of Hiroshima by Tanaka Suekichi. It operates more than 100 stores in Japan, manufacturing and marketing spectacles, contact lenses and hearing aids as well as selling other optical goods. The founder was an ambitious entrepreneur who opened one of the first professional optical stores in Hiroshima at that time. Tanaka Optical has since worked hard to drive innovation in the Japanese eyewear industry to enable us to provide the high quality, personalised customer service that our company has become famous for. IR: Why did Tanaka choose Singapore to open its first outlet outside Japan? SW: At Tanaka, we seek to serve our treasured customers with the joy of seeing and the pleasure of being seen through our intimate eyewear recommendations. We have been looking for corporate partners that endorse the high-quality services our company has cultivated in Japan. That’s how we have found Flo. We have been aiming to deepen our understanding of local customers in Singapore and learn about local business models after acquiring Flo in September 2019. The huge impetus to open our first overseas Tanaka outlet in Singapore this year was encouraged by several factors – the quality understanding of the local market, the right location, the demand for a good Japanese eyewear in that vicinity as well as the reasonable rental we were able to negotiate. IR: Can you tell us what it was like to launch a new store during the pandemic? What were the challenges that you’ve faced and overcome? SW: It was both nerve-wracking and exciting to open our very first Tanaka flagship store during the pandemic. There were a few challenges that we had to brace through but the following are the more significant ones: Retail innovation The Covid-19 outbreak urged consumers to change their buying and shopping behaviors not only in Singapore but worldwide. The pandemic reminded us of the biggest and simplest lesson, that is to keep innovating our retail services with the updated technology for sustainable business growth. It was the same lesson learned from our victorious 107-year history. From there we launched the Omakase eyewear styling service online. This service analyses customers’ facial features, counsel on your lifestyle and aesthetic values, and ultimately make custom frame recommendations based on the individual analysis results. We created our first overseas store by integrating the online service to even further reinforce the personalised touch of our customers’ brand experience. Renovating the outlet The construction sector, which has largely been in limbo since the Covid-19 circuit breaker safety measures were put in place, is facing a complicated approval process, along with labour and supply crunch. Approvals are only granted when construction companies/ID firms show they can comply with the comprehensive set of safe management guidelines, which include sending workers for swab tests and training to ensure familiarity with Covid safety measures. Manpower, recruitment and staff training The selection process took quite a while as most people are reluctant to move and change jobs during uncertain times. Due to the tighter border restrictions by the Singapore government, we could not transfer people between Japan and Singapore to organise face-to-face and OJT-based training of in-store services over here. However, as the Japan organisation has longer experience of online training thanks to the in-house academy system namely TORMA (Tanaka Optical Retail Management Academy), we utilised online training to front liners of the new store in Singapore. Since we fortunately started the process early, we were able to overcome these challenges. IR: How has the optical market evolved since you launched your business? SW: There were a tremendous number of disruptive innovations and evolutions in the optical market since the company was founded in 1913. When our founder opened his first shop in Hiroshima, lenses were shaped and polished by the hands of our store staff for individual prescriptions of our customers. We have been adopting the latest technologies from time to time to evolve our personalised customer service to even higher quality. The recent optical market utilises digitalisation for a cost-saving retail model by reducing the interactions between customers and staff and the professional service provision from eye care practitioners. Whereas at Tanaka we aim to integrate digitalisation as an enabler to increase personalised experience between customers and our staff. We will not use technology to replace our staff when providing customer services. IR: Have you gathered any interesting insights about your business last year? What were the major challenges that your business faced during the pandemic? SW: It has been a rather erratic 2020, predominantly dictated by the government‘s Covid measures. As expected, sales picked up when the measures eased. Interestingly, during the period where working from home was by default set by the government, contact lenses’ sales are the first to slide. I reckon this is similar to the beauty industry, as makeup and contact lenses are not required when one is working from home. The major challenges we faced are no different to all other retailers across other industries which are the dwindling traffic and low buying power. IR: Do you have expansion plans in the pipeline? What has the company planned post Covid-19? SW: As a matter of fact, we do! While we are scrutinising and evaluating our sales and sales trend to ascertain what is best for our business, we expect to grow the business via both offline and online expansions, namely store network and online service. Especially the new online Omakase eyewear styling service, which was designed for a post Covid-19 world. The pandemic taught us two things in general, that we became wiser to use online to cover almost all our activities, and we had a recalibration of “what really matters” that will influence what we do, how we spend time, what we buy, and where. The Omakase eyewear styling service is a face-to-face online styling service by our professional eyewear stylist who utilises in-house techniques to give advice on personal styling for a more customised, intimate eyewear look. The outcome of our analysis is unique — each customer has different qualities, values, and needs, and our service reflects our individuality as people. The Omakase eyewear styling service online enables consumers to much more conveniently experience such exciting journeys of self-expression. No two people’s styles are the same, and the Omakase service seeks to celebrate this diversity of lifestyle and personality. We aim to help our customers become “uniquely you”. IR: Can you tell us about the Tanaka Optical customer? What do you think he/she wants, needs that he or she can’t find anywhere else? SW: The Tanaka Optical customers understand quality and service. They are looking for ‘eyewear’, instead of ‘glasses’, since they know eyewear can influence their look, and are interested in enhancing their style by coordinating with fashion. At the same time, they seek professional advice and recommendations tailored to their needs. They appreciate our staff who are patient and understand their needs, and have profound knowledge about our products and are always making the best recommendations to them. IR: What are some of the e-commerce trends that you’re interested in right now? SW: Needless to say, online shopping became a huge boom in Singapore, live-streaming captures Singapore’s attention amidst online shopping growth during Covid-19. They enjoy connecting with “hosts” of live-streaming shopping channels, representatives of sellers through real-time messages on their streaming page. It brought up a unique form of online shopping experience with more human touch and an enjoyable and interactive process, compared to normal e-commerce shopping. IR: How do you think Tanaka has been able to retain its customer base and continue succeeding for more than 100 years? SW: Since our founding in 1913, Tanaka Optical has strived to drive innovation in the Japanese eyewear industry to provide the high quality, personalised customer service that our company has become famous for. The core [values and mission] of our company has never been changed throughout the series of challenging times, even the historic WWII and the bombing in Hiroshima. The trust between customers and the brand made us survive. The quality of our customer service has been proven in our history. IR: Can you tell us about the initiatives your company has taken to reduce its carbon footprint? What inspired you to focus on sustainability? SW: Fairly said, we haven’t yet implemented robust actions to reduce our carbon footprint. What inspired us to be more accountable for sustainability is from the core of our business, that is based on the traditional format of the optical retail business rather than the fast-fashion optical business format. We sell broader collections of products and give tailored recommendations to our customers. Thus, we don’t need to rely on mass production of trend-led products and excessive dead stocks after the trend is over. We believe our personalised recommendation could take an alternative role against the current highly trend-dependent mass consumption retail culture.