Big all over, except in Japan

An advertisement of Samsung Electronics Co's Galaxy S4 smartphone is displayed at a shop of Japan's biggest mobile phone operator NTT Docomo in Tokyo on July 3, 2013. But Samsung laptops and TVs are not sold in the country. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
An advertisement of Samsung Electronics Co's Galaxy S4 smartphone is displayed at a shop of Japan's biggest mobile phone operator NTT Docomo in Tokyo on July 3, 2013. But Samsung laptops and TVs are not sold in the country. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

By Hau Boon Lai

MY MOBILE phone battery, like any dying electronic goods worth its salt, chose to go kaput at the most inconvenient of times – when I was overseas.

As my phone is a Samsung Galaxy 2, and as phones in the Galaxy series, according to reports, have been eating everyone’s lunch globally, I expected it to be a cinch to buy a new battery for it.

However, it was not quite the smooth process I envisaged. Japan, it seems, has yet to receive the memo that Samsung is now the world’s biggest smartphone maker and seller.

The natural first stop was Bic Camera, one of Japan’s largest electronic goods chains. The Akasaka-Mitsuke Station branch I went to is huge – nine storeys high, with a basement floor.

Smartphones and a surprisingly large range of old-fashioned mobile phones were on the ground floor. An advertisement for Samsung Galaxy 4 phones was running on one of the many small TV screens that dotted the floor.

So far, so good.

I went straight for the Android smartphone accessories section, but all I saw were phone covers and portable batteries.

A friendly salesman offered his help, and that’s when I was told that while the chain sells Samsung phones, it does not stock Samsung phone batteries. Only telco NTT Docomo’s shops carried the batteries, he said. And one such shop was just 100m away.

Indeed, it was. This time, a friendly saleswoman attended to me. She took my phone into the shop’s inner sanctum and came out about five minutes later, apologising as she told me that the shop did not carry the battery my Samsung Galaxy 2 phone needed.

Sensing something amiss, I pressed her to check with other NTT Docomo outlets, its headquarters, its warehouse, or anywhere in the telco’s supply chain where the battery could be found.

Fortunately, she responded positively to my request – and advised by a senior in the backroom, realised that one model of batteries in the store with the NTT Docomo imprint was actually a Samsung phone battery.

I had just saved myself long trips in the hot summer heat to a possibly endless number of NTT Docomo outlets.

Japan is sometimes described as being in a class of its own, but I believe it is more accurate to say that it is in a world of its own.

After I bought the phone battery, I went back to Bic Camera to ask the same friendly salesman there about Samsung products such as its touchscreen laptops and TVs, but he was puzzled and said he did not know there were Samsung laptops and TVs. They are not sold in the chain, and as I found out later, nor elsewhere in Japan.

So, as a brand, Samsung is only known in Japan for its cellphones, and not as well as in other countries – it captured only about 7 per cent of the Japanese market for cellphones last year.

While quite a few Japanese have succumbed to the K-pop and K-drama phenomena, Korean electronic goods and cars are a different matter, and many seem to still see the goods as the poorer (quality) cousins of their Japanese counterparts.

But Japanese manufacturers, after years of being the trend-setters, are finding themselves overtaken globally. For many of them, the only bright spot is in their own country, where they still hold a bit of their own, thanks to some diehard local fans.

The smartphone revolution has shown up the Japanese companies – phone makers such as Sony and NEC found themselves scrambling to fend off the challenge from Apple’s iPhones and now, increasingly, Samsung’s smartphones, as more Japanese switch from conventional sets to smartphones.

In fact, NEC recently threw in the towel on its smartphone business, citing its lateness in entering the market.

Japan, with its many struggling companies, cannot afford to be out of step with the world, especially when it is behind the curve.

Competition is what drives innovations, and Samsung’s performance, as it gets stronger with more people catching on to its market-friendly strengths, will hopefully spur its Japanese counterparts towards better, more innovative products.

Perhaps visitors will then be asking to replace a more easily identifiable battery of a Japanese smartphone.

boonlai@sph.com.sg