Japan's new gadgets more practical Hammered by economic hard times, consumers forgo novelty for utility

December 31, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Ring out an old year that gave birth to the automatic can-sorting garbage truck. Ring in a new year bright with the promise of a laundry soap that won't fade colored clothes.

Can this be the same Japan that in 1990 computerized the bedroom to measure the night's street noises and play mood music just loud enough to shut them out? The same country that in 1989 gave humankind the self-warming padded toilet seat?

Japan it is, and it has taken corporate tacticians two long years of harder times to bring out products prosaic enough to match their customers' new mood.

For most of the 1980s and well into the early 1990s, this country's newspaper and magazine new-products lists were famous for luxuries like the $47,000 "encapsulating" bathroom. The owner could turn it on by telephone as he left the office and arrive home to find a waiting tub of hot water and a boating or skiing scene projected on the wall to help him unwind.

As recently as last spring, new-product listings still were dominated by luxuries like a $337 Seiko TV with a 3.3-inch screen that fit in the pocket and a Fuji Film disposable camera line decorated with popular cartoon characters to help it break into the child market.

No fewer than three new "world's smallest" fax machines came out in seven months, each introduced with a claim that it had displaced the one before as the world's smallest, lightest and fastest.

But even last spring, harder times were already catching up with the new-products game.

Confronted with stubbornly soft economies not only at home but also in Europe and North America, corporate tacticians were switching their focus.

"Surveys were showing by last year that both here and in the biggest export markets, consumers were abandoning luxury and novelty for their own sakes and instead asking more questions about the prices and the practical uses of new products," said Francis X. Lacy, a consumer goods marketing consultant.

"It takes time to readjust product lines, so we're only now seeing new product lists fully keyed to the new demands."

On the same list with last spring's cartoon-decorated cameras from Fuji Film was a new document shredder from Fuji Xerox, small enough to fit on a desk top and cheap enough, at $1,135, to sell to small offices.

On the same list with Canon's version of the world's smallest fax machine was a new egg-shaped Mitsubishi vacuum cleaner named Kururina, "the machine that can somersault." With outsized wheels on both ends, it was designed to get the vacuum cleaner to change direction and follow its user.

Equally practical in its own way is the new $80,645 can-sorting garbage truck a Japanese company brought out in 1992.

Inside are a conveyor belt and sensing equipment that makes three piles -- bottles, aluminum cans and steel cans. A compressor then crushes each mound of cans to one-twelfth of its original volume.

Mr. Lacy, the marketing consultant, said, "We may well see 1993 become the year of the laundry detergent that makes clothes last longer. That's the kind of stuff people want when they start watching their purses."

If so, Procter & Gamble Far East Inc., the American soap giant's Japan affiliate, has a running start.

With the help of a mammoth TV campaign, its new Super Cheer grabbed a hefty 7 percent of Japan's laundry soap market in its first year and is still growing fast.

Super Cheer's winning sales claim: An additive that dissolves the chlorine that makes colored clothes fade. The company added the chemical after surveys showed a leap to more than 80 percent in the number of Japanese who worried that clothes faded too much in the wash.

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