What's So Funny about a Teddy Bear, the Internet, and a Little Understanding?

Back to Contents of Issue: November 1999

by Rolf Boone

Absolutely nothing. Remember, you can get by with a case of beer for the boss during the gift-giving seasons of ochugen and oseibo, and you'll most likely be plenty happy with that box of chocolates from the wife or girlfriend come Valentine's Day, but do you think you're going to get by with that same crummy box of cookies you gave her for last year's White Day? Think again. Consider this: A Vermont Teddy Bear Co. Bear-Gram complete with Vermont Teddy Bear, personalized gift card, a safety B'Air Bag filled with Vermont air, and a lifetime guarantee, and she'll probably marry you on the spot. OK-maybe not, but it's the thought that counts.

And you thought the Net in Japan was all software, books, and CDs.

"In general, Teddy Bears are very popular in Japan right now," said Elisabeth Robert, president of The Vermont Teddy Bear Company. "Of course, ours is a different concept. We are not in the business of selling 'Teddy Bears,' we are selling what we call the Bear-gram delivery service. It's not selling a toy or a plush animal, what we are selling is the creative alternative to flowers."

The realization struck the ownership back in 1996-that Teddy Bears alone were not going to cut it. But a change of focus, followed by an entry into the world of the Internet-now responsible for more than a quarter of all sales-and most recently in June of this year, a push into the Japanese marketplace with US-Style.com., a Connecticut-based website that specializes in the business of translating home and product pages, handling bilingual customer service requests, and whatever insight they can offer American companies into the world of doing business on the Internet in Japan.

Elisabeth Robert, president, The Vermont Teddy Bear company

The key point was not lost on Robert. "Again, I know we're taking several orders a day, but I don't know exactly how many, and as I said, this is really our effort to get to know the marketplace, because I've been made aware of the fact that if you don't do it right, the Japanese can develop a negative perspective that is very, very, difficult to alter. These are the kind of issues in working with US-Style.com that we have been made keenly aware of, and what we need to address before we approach this is in a mass situation."

Perhaps this is what is most interesting. At times, the rush to set up and establish any IT-related venture in Japan resembles less the professionalism inherent in such dealings, but more that of the California Gold Rush of 1849. One hundred and fifty years later, and it is sometimes hard to tell. But The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. is not easily rushed to judgment. "This is a learning process right now," a patient Robert said. "We're trying at this point to be purely reactive so that we can learn about who our Japanese customer is, what their particular sensitivities are, and what they like or don't like: the way we package it, deliver it, and so forth. And once we feel like we really understand the Japanese marketplace, and feel confident that we meet their needs, then it is our intention to begin supporting our website and partnership with US-Style.com with offline advertising."

But fret not. A Bear-Gram is in the works just for you. A white Teddy Bear with a white velvet bow tie and a piece of white chocolate. What will they think up next? Vermont snow that doesn't melt?


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