When one of my colleagues suggested that I write a Blog Post looking back over running The Japanese Shop for 25 years, my first thought was wow, it’s certainly been a rollercoaster ride, I hope the following goes someway to explain!
1998-2008 Starting Out
When Hiromi and I set out on this journey shortly after returning from living in Osaka, life was already pretty hectic. In the month of November 1998 we had just moved in to our first house and had our first child (Josh) so it was perhaps not the ideal time for me to leave the relative comfort of the corporate world and sign a new lease on a very small shop in Harrogate, but that’s what we did!
Birth of ‘Doko Toko’
We started out with no real market research, a little bit of cash, a reasonable amount of sales experience but a whole lot of passion for Japan and a real determination to make our new venture ‘successful’, whatever that meant! We originally called the company ‘Doko Toko Ltd’, meaning ‘distinctive’ in Japanese, but soon realised that customers were referring to us as, ‘that Japanese shop’ so we quickly changed our name to ‘The Japanese Shop’! But it was far from an overnight success. I can still remember, one year after opening, 3 days early in November 1999 when, with Christmas just around the corner and I thought we’d be flat out, we served absolutely no customers at all!
(Our first ever shop 'Doko Toko' on Parliament street in Harrogate)
Spreading the flavour of Japan from Harrogate to York and Chester
But slowly, it seemed that our customers quite liked our quirky and colourful authentic Japanese gifts and they appreciated our genuine commitment to deliver a quality service, epitomised by our free Japanese style gift wrapping. So, by 2004 we had relocated our shop in Harrogate and opened new shops in York and Chester, as well as a head office distribution centre in Harrogate. The business news in the early 2000’s was dominated by the dotcom boom, but these were pre broadband days when it would take forever to load a website and pay anyone online using dial-up technology, desperately hoping the line wouldn’t drop mid-transaction! But determined not to miss out, we launched our first website in 2002 and it soon began to make a helpful contribution to the business.
2004 Winning Awards
By the mid 2000’s we were starting to make a reasonable profit and attract a reasonable amount of publicity too, particularly in York where we had been the winner or runner up in a number of regional business awards, which culminated with the York Press Business Awards on the 18th November 2004. We just planned a pre-Xmas night of free booze on expenses to say thank you to my parents and many of our staff and, tucked away on a table at the back of the room we never expected to win anything… We returned home, winner of the Retailer of the Year Award, winner of the Small Business of the Year Award and winner of the Overall Business of the Year Award! After a wonderful night of celebrating, I remember struggling through a press interview at 9am the following morning! In the next few years, we pushed turnover to just short of £1.5M and I felt quietly confident that we could open 30-50 shops throughout the UK. I actually did a ‘Dragons Den’ style pitch for funding at some point and despite getting 3 offers I decided that we should probably open a few more shops from organic funding rather than risk the positive culture we had created with external investment. By September 2008 we were flying pretty high and I remember playing golf in Spain with school friends thinking that life was pretty good. I had absolutely no idea of what lay just around the corner…
(Yorkshire Evening Press article when we won the awards)
2009 The Crash
Just 4 months later, by mid-January 2009, the global financial crash hit hard and in 1 week that month, I lost my father (who by then was working with us) and our business, we had to close all 3 shops and make redundant all but 1 of our 25 staff. We lost everything. Determined not to give up, we decided to re-focus our efforts and by now extremely limited resources, on our website. By now we had 3 boys (Luke and Harry appeared!) so we turfed 2 of them out of their bedroom, turned it into an office and for a couple of years we would pick/pack and despatch online orders from home! We launched a mail-order brochure and I recall receiving our first order for over £400, by fax!
2012 The Come Back!
By January 2012 we had increased online sales to the point where we felt a bit more confident about the future and decided to invest in a small office/showroom in Harrogate. Sales continued to grow, and it quickly became clear that there was a market for our authentic Japanese gifts outside the UK and we began to attract customers in the EU and North America. We embraced new marketplaces on Amazon and eBay as well as their international channels and with limited competition in Europe by 2015 this business had grown to become a significant contribution. Then we had the Brexit vote in 2016 which almost completely wiped out this business by 2020! We then felt we had to concentrate on our domestic UK customers, so in 2022 we made a significant investment in a new e-commerce platform. Just one year on we are starting to see the benefits of this with an improved conversion rate and average order values.
Now and the Future
So where are we now? The business is about half the size it was when we had 3 shops, but with greatly reduced overheads, as the saying goes, ‘Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity’. When we started out 25 years ago, I would never have thought that we would be selling ramen bowls to gastro pubs, corporate gifts to such prestigious Japanese companies such as Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi or have sold our gifts to over 50 countries worldwide, including Japan! We are extremely proud of our incredibly loyal customer base that is now in excess of 100,000 private, wholesale and corporate customers.
So, what of the future? Well, it has been, as I said, a real rollercoaster ride, horrible when your cash flow tightens up and you are wondering how you’re going to pay your VAT bill, frustrating too when you are hit hard by external influences that you can’t control, such as the financial crash and Brexit. You do need to be pretty resilient to be a small business owner these days! But I am confident that we do have the potential to double our business within the next 3-5 years and achieve our ambition to become the market leader for Japanese gifts in the UK. I am also well aware that can only be achieved with a great team of people and it has been a real privilege to meet all the amazing people that we have worked with over the last 25 years, many of whom are still great friends today. However, I am particularly excited to be working with our current wonderful team and truly believe that we can continue to grow together. Hiromi and I have probably done pretty well not to have strangled each other by now, working and living together is not always easy but I can say with complete confidence that we are both just as excited about The Japanese Shop now as we were 25 years ago!
To celebrate the 25 years with our customers, we’ve been running a special event ’25 gifts to celebrate 25 years!’ Simply visit our website and place an order, you’ll automatically be entered for a chance to win a surprise gift from us. But hurry, this event ends on Saturday 18th of November and maybe your last chance to win! Good luck!