Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Gadget makers search for gold in bizarre Tokyo show

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After 20 minutes with Hideyo Watanabe, I’m lost in his saga of the Tanzo pocket opener: a stainless steel tool with no moving parts that could be tuned to take advantage of changing demographics, the vagaries of professional kitchen investment, and the pandemic.

These dreams brought Mr. Watanabe as an exhibitor at the Care Show Japan, a three-day trade fair on the topic of retirement homes, personal care and medical facilities. This would normally be just one of the hundreds of such events held in Tokyo every year. Today, given Japan’s official state of emergency, it is remarkable that the rally is taking place.

The huge vaults of the Big Sight Convention Center, with ceiling fans mounted on full and widely spaced booths, accentuate the all-consuming sensitivity of holding a salon during a pandemic. The number of exhibitors and visitors is down from previous years, and Covid-19’s bizarre and unresolved calculation is creating glaring quirks. Big companies, organizers said, want to stay present at a major industry rally. But you can’t see them sending personnel to a potential infection cluster. Most have chosen to pay and mark their allocated space – then leave it unattended.

Even in ordinary times, business know-how requires a balance between aspiration, despair and conviction. Trade shows try to bundle an entire industry’s supply into one room, even if it has to be behind masks and social distancing.

Such events provide a snapshot of an assembled sector of the economy. There is a concentration of clients and expertise; companies ranging from mammoths to minnows are also jostling. Nothing online can replicate it. If you are lucky say Christopher Eve, 30-year veteran of Tokyo trade shows and organizer of it, an empty room becomes an instant community.

Superficially, the community aspect seems moving. Small businesses, for whom these shows are vital, are more effusive and cooperative than ever in their peddling, explains the representative of a company selling deer placenta products. Repressed commercial instincts feel released after nearly a year of forced bottling. Trade shows, according to the maker of softened meat products for nursing home canteens, provide a compendium of person-to-person contact – the vitamin that Covid-19 has denied to so many companies. And this show has at least partially delivered.

If there is a consensus at Care Show Japan, however, it’s that many people are deciding to view Covid-19 as part of the long-term commercial scene, rather than assuming that it will eventually go away.

This is what lies behind Mr. Watanabe’s calculations about his company’s only product, once the sales end. It opens the food bags with a single swipe of the razor and carries the slogan “faster than scissors, safer than a knife”. He’s a natural adapter: His growth strategy, he says, has always been about determining which kitchens prefer knives or scissors for opening their pouches and adjusting the pitch accordingly.

Like any business, Tanzo adapts to fundamental changes in the environment. For many years, some of its biggest customers were Japan’s ubiquitous workplace canteens and “family restaurants” – franchise restaurants renowned for their value and notorious for their overworked staff. Sachet openers are perfect in the white heat of those kitchens, which rely on pre-packaged ingredients.

Covid-19, notes Mr. Watanabe, has been disastrous for restaurants and canteens in the workplace. Even where it did not directly force closures, it amplified the problems of an industry serving a shrinking population. But he argues that the pandemic has not altered demand from Japan’s ever-expanding nursing home industry. These will be the future customers of the pocket opener, he judges, and that is why he invested in a stand at the show.

His decision, Mr Eve says optimistically, may even pay off more effectively than before Covid. When a program is in low quantity, it can be of high quality. Only serious visitors braved Covid to come, he said, leaving “office skiers and those showing up to shows for free ballpoint pens” at home.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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