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ATEX's vision: Pioneering innovation, quality, and comfort in the world of lifestyle products

Interview - January 31, 2024

ATEX is a Japanese brand forging excellence in lifestyle products, from combating global competition to redefining caregiving

KEIKO HARASHIMA, PRESIDENT OF ATEX CO., LTD.
KEIKO HARASHIMA | PRESIDENT OF ATEX CO., LTD.

Over the past 25-30 years, Japan has seen a rise in regional competitors from countries that have replicated the Japanese model for success but done so at a cheaper labor cost, pushing Japan out of mass markets. However, despite this, many Japanese brands have been successful in overseas markets. What are the advantages of Japanese brands, and what added value do they bring?

This may be a little off-topic about monozukuri, but if you can imagine airplanes and trains in Japan for a second. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that they are very punctual, which is especially true compared to other countries, where trains and airplanes often experience delays. People take that for granted a little bit, and Japanese people just expect things to be on time. This is reflected in the manufacturing culture as well. The tolerance for defects in Japan is quite low, especially when compared to countries like China or the West. This is why we have fewer defects during our manufacturing processes; Japanese workers do not tolerate them. This has created a clean image for Japan that is reflected in the media’s interpretation of Japanese manufacturing.

Our products are sometimes produced in our partner factory in China, but anytime we produce something overseas, we make sure to dispatch people from Japan who are in the development division so that we can maintain a standard of quality for production. This is a crucial advantage you get from made-in-Japan products.

 

Japan is the oldest society in the world with a rapidly shrinking demographic line due to low birth rates, and we are seeing issues like a labor crisis and a shrinking domestic market as a result. What have been some of the challenges your firm has felt due to this demographic shift, and how have you been reacting to them?

Looking toward the next 50 years, as you mentioned, there will be severe aging. Personally, I myself took care of my mother about 5 years ago, and it was really difficult. I felt like I wished I could care for her more easily. We have reclining beds in our product lineup. Since it can be reclined electrically, it is a product that allows people who require nursing care to sleep and wake up easily. We also develop and sell massage devices that relieve fatigue. In this regard, I think the shifting demographic is actually an opportunity for our company.

As for the labor crisis you mentioned, we are actually not trying to grow the number of employees we have. Instead, we are looking to maintain a minimum number of experts. Basically, we are looking to have a small, professional group of experts to run engineering tasks. Of course, it will benefit the firm if we can hire a few more young professionals to keep the expertise going into the future.

 

The SOYO series is functional bedding that reduces stiffness in the body and lets airflow through the mats. Additionally, it has a dehumidifying effect achieved through a small fan creating a rise in heat and reducing moisture on the mat surface. Could you tell us about the effects of the SOYO series?

Within the SOYO series, there are products for general customers and products for handicapped customers as well as children. This product uses a material made of three-dimensionally woven fibers to allow ventilation of the air inside the bedding. Basically, the technology we employ is designed to remove the humidity caused by sweat. This way, users can sleep more comfortably. In fact, because of this technology, you can even save electricity because you can reduce the humidity, and users will not require their air conditioning (AC) units to output such a low temperature. This product became a big hit at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 because the product contributed to energy savings. It is not a massager, but you can release heat by utilizing the built-in fan. This is quite effective for handicapped people, the elderly, and handicapped children because these people have a more challenging time changing their sleeping position. If they cannot change positions, they may develop skin rashes because of the friction of the bed.

Some handicapped people have a hard time controlling their body temperature. Even if the temperature is regulated by an air conditioner, people who have difficulty controlling their body temperature are less likely to sweat. In contrast, the SOYO series allows heat and moisture to escape, bringing your body closer to comfortable conditions, and making it easier to sleep even on sultry nights.

 

Earlier in 2023, ATEX launched three new brands: ATEX LOURDES, ATEX BED, and ATEX TOR. These brands cover various different equipment from bedding to massaging tools. Why did you decide that 2023 was the right time to release these brands to the world? What is your strategy to ensure their successful growth?

ATEX is our corporate brand, but Lourdes and Tor have been our brands for our massage equipment. Back in 2009, a massage cushion that can be placed on your shoulders and lower back to relieve fatigue under the Lourdes became a great hit so the name itself became quite famous. However, most of the time, people had a hard time linking Lourdes with ATEX so we wanted to create some linkage between the brands. That is why we decided to release the new brand under the name ATEX LOURDES.

Tor is a brand for more premium and elegant product lines so when we released the brand of ATEX LOURDES we also decided to release the brand name ATEX TOR. ATEX used to make beds and in this industry, most companies automatically make an association between ATEX and beds. On this occasion, however, we also wanted to raise brand awareness of our beds as well as our massage equipment. That is why we also released ATEX BED along with the other two brands.

 

We know that one of your products is the Professional Foot Massager AX-HPT 370 TOR Massage Stool, which is equipped with 60 layers of airbags, the largest number of airbags in the history of foot massagers and among products currently on sale (as of April 2021). Why should customers purchase the AX-HPT 370 over more conventional foot massagers?

You can use it as a stool, and this is one of the characteristics of this product. It was a key point of the product that not only can it be used as a foot massager, but it can also be used as a regular footstool as well. These kinds of products are commonly known as stealth products, whereby the exterior hides the functional interior of the product. You insert your feet into the stool, and the device will massage your feet from top to bottom. This massage experience is very detailed because of the 60 layers of airbags. There are several programmable courses, one of which is perfect for tired legs after a day of walking. Since each person's physique is different, the optimal angle of the foot when inserting the foot will differ accordingly. The inclination of the machine can be changed with the push of a button to provide the perfect fit for your feet and a blissful massage. To avoid this feeling, the stool is adjustable to the user's height.



What product, in particular, are you most proud of? What is your favorite product?

My personal favorite is the Fem-On-Tech Onkyu AX-HPL151.

 

With stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and lockdowns, physical retailers suffered while online sales jumped more than 13%, making Japan the fourth-largest e-commerce market in the world. How has your business adapted to take advantage of this growth in e-commerce we've seen in recent years?

Speaking of e-commerce, we were able to double our sales in 2022 when compared to 2019, and the reason is that we renewed our website back in 2019 to be more user-friendly, especially on smartphones and tablets. Going forward, we would like to increase our online sales four times or even ten times more. We made the decision to renew our website long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit because we wanted to expand the usage of our online services by customers. With that investment, we improved touchpoints that stressed out users wishing to purchase products. Then the pandemic hit, and we were able to successfully take advantage of the rising popularity of e-commerce sales.

 

This year, you participated in the 50th International Welfare Equipment Exhibition, which is Asia’s largest international exhibition in the field. Can you tell us more about the event and if you believe it was a success for your firm? Are you looking to participate in more international events going forward?

Many people visited our booth at the exhibition, so I think our presence was successful. That exhibition focused on products and services for handicapped people, so our SOYO series drew a lot of attention from participants. We also have a variety of different electric reclining beds, which is a product for patients who are about to receive care. These products allow users to easily raise their upper body so that they can watch TV while they are in bed. This drew a lot of attention from rental companies in particular.

As for our plans to participate in more international events, that is a given and we would like to be more active in that scene. Before the pandemic, we participated in the International Home and Houseware Show which was held in Chicago, Illinois. It was an exhibition for furniture and houseware equipment. At the exhibition, we demonstrated our hand massager, and the product won a Global Innovation Award; one of only a few Japanese products to even be nominated.

 

What role do partnerships play in your business model, and are you currently looking for any new partnerships either domestically or overseas?

At this moment, we have a partner factory in China and another one in Vietnam. These two factories produce our massagers and beds. We also have a distributor in Hong Kong and Singapore. As for new partnerships, it would have to be a company that we feel is reliable. Today one of our board members is coming back from Hong Kong where she visited some exhibitions related to electronic products. One of the purposes of that visit was to scout out potential partners.

 

We know besides the locations you have mentioned, you have also been present in Taiwan since 1997. Moving forward, which countries or regions do you believe have the most potential for your firm?

We do have offices in both Shanghai and Taiwan, but it would be difficult to expand those offices based on our business size. In order for us to expand sales in a viable way, we need to find more distributors moving forward. Taiwan is a small market, but many people like Japanese products. Our products sell well both offline and online. Shanghai has a slightly different situation, but the online market is still quite effective for selling our products there. In terms of other countries, right now we have not made any decisions and we are looking to avoid any geopolitical risks. My personal opinion is that Europe has the most potential right now.

 

Imagine that we come back in four years and have this interview all over again: what goals or dreams would you like to have achieved by then?

The company has always had a philosophy of creating a lasting impression on our customers. Those products are designed to contribute to society and enrich users’ lives. In the next four years, we would like to increase the number of ATEX fans, and we would like them to feel happy that they have purchased our products. By doing so we would also like to make our employees motivated and happy in the process.

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