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Business trends

Muji and Lazada hold big hopes for Asia's rising middle class

Retail chiefs tell Nikkei Forum of Thai expansion plans for country

No-frills retailer Muji says it shapes its business around what is best for the consumer. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Asian consumers, especially in Thailand, hold great promise for retailers, the head of Japan's Muji chain told business leaders in a keynote address at the Nikkei Forum here Friday.

The event is focused on the Asian consumer market, backed by a rapidly rising middle class.

"By 2030, we look to increase revenue in Thailand by 10 times and increase the number of stores to 50 to 60," said Satoru Matsuzaki, president of Ryohin Keikaku, the company behind the brand of household goods known for their keep-it-simple design philosophy. The move would represent a significant jump from the 17 stores currently in operation, underscoring confidence in the Thai market.

Marketers must be able to nimbly adapt to consumers' evolving tastes to succeed in Asia, Matsuzaki said.

He touched on how middle-class buyers demand satisfaction beyond physical objects. "As time changes and society matures, consumers begin to develop their own values," Matsuzaki said. He added that the same transformation that swept through Japan and Western economies in the past is taking place now in the rest of Asia.

"Our product development policy is to the check the product from the customer's point of view rather than the from the producer's point of view," Matsuzaki said

Improved logistical and finance infrastructure has created ample room for growth in Asia's e-commerce sector. Thailand in particular "has the world's longest usage times on the web and on mobile phones," Dai Takeuchi, consulting partner at PwC Thailand, said at the event. Digitization of services remains incomplete in both the public and private sectors, but "further development will potentially lead to a jump in users and applications," Takeuchi said.

James Dong, CEO of e-commerce company Lazada Thailand, said this country's customer base "hasn't been properly tapped yet." Lazada, the Singapore-based parent, is controlled by Chinese e-tailing leader Alibaba Group Holding. Dong acknowledged that "cash is still a popular payment method" in Thailand, but he sees online shopping picking up once electronic payment gains traction.

During a panel discussion, Wasna Lathouras, president of Thai apparel seller Narai Intertrade, argued that there is still a place for brick-and-mortar outlets in this new era of online consumption. "In three to five years, consumers will come back to stores," she said.

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