Home > Highlighting JAPAN > Highlighting Japan July 2018 > My Way

Highlighting JAPAN


Linking Japan’s Past and Future

Nicolas Soergel runs a shop that has specialized in umeboshi—Japanese salt-pickled plums—for generations. How did this German expat also end up launching an e-commerce site that gives makers of traditional Japanese products a sales channel to the world?

NIHON ICHIBAN is an e-commerce site that sells traditional Japanese foods, art and handicrafts to customers abroad. The site’s owner, Nicolas Soergel, came to Japan in 2001 when the German company he worked for transferred him to its Japanese branch. In 2010, Nicolas left that job to help his wife take over her family business in Kanagawa Prefecture—an umeboshi specialty shop in Odawara called Chinriu Honten, established in 1871 by the last chief cook of Odawara Castle—as its fifth-generation proprietors.

“At the time, other long standing businesses that provided goods to the same department store we did were complaining that the Japanese market was shrinking, and that they wanted to expand overseas but didn’t know how,” Soergel says. “I realized that I had the capability to do that, and that this could be my forte.”

The first thing he did was to set up an overseas marketing and sales division within Chinriu Honten. In 2012, he launched the NIHON ICHIBAN site. Since the site had no track record yet, all he had to convince potential suppliers was a proposal on paper.
“I took that proposal and visited local craftsmen and famous manufacturers of traditional goods. A common refrain among them was that ‘lots of companies call to say they’d like to sell our products online, but you’re the only one who actually came to visit.’ That face-to-face approach helped to establish trust and deepened my understanding of their businesses. I was able to clearly explain the unique selling points of their goods.”

Now NIHON ICHIBAN lists around one hundred companies and two thousand three hundred items. “I’d like to see the catalogue reach over ten thousand items eventually,” Nicolas says. His dream is for NIHON ICHIBAN to become NIHON ICHIBAN Holdings—a business platform for flagship stores selling traditional products.

“Many Japanese traditional craft makers face the problem of having no successor,” he observes. “If they end up closing shop because of that, it would be a great loss for this aspect of Japanese culture. My plan for NIHON ICHIBAN Holdings is to acquire companies without successors and then develop them through an international online network that can help protect the knowhow of traditional craftsmen.

“Quite often these artisans do not have many skills outside of their specialty,” he adds. “The holding company can gather experts in handling finance, marketing or design matters, then everyone can share these resources to build their business and fill in the missing pieces over time.”

As part of this push, Nicolas urges suppliers to create products with overseas buyers in mind. Last year, patterned and lacquered deerskin products made in collaboration with traditional manufacturers targeting the European market were decorated with simple designs to appeal to local tastes.

“Some Japanese products can sell overseas as they are, and some can’t. We need to take into account the preferences of the target market and times, to bring a breath of fresh air to the world of traditional Japanese crafts.”

His business has slowly but surely expanded, but it wasn’t easy at first. In the startup years he worked round the clock and had to do everything from creating the site to writing all the product descriptions.

“I worked on projects starting from scratch in my previous career, so I know that it takes at least three years of hard work before seeing any results,” Nicolas states.
His ultimate dream, he says, is to link Japan’s traditions and future, and Nicolas continues to make steady progress toward fulfilling that vision.