Should I Use Shopify in Japan? Opportunities vs. Challenges

Posted By Jim Kersey

Shopify is one of the most popular ecommerce platform options out there and is considered by some to be the best hosted solution in several countries. But how does this platform hold up in Japan?

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you already know about some of the platform’s major features, including feature-rich offerings and integration options. But, in Japan, with its incredibly unique and diverse ecommerce landscape dominated by Rakuten, Amazon and Yahoo, is setting up a platform through Shopify going to help you achieve your commercial goals?

We explore these questions as well as a few reasons brands may or may not choose Shopify as part of their multichannel online sales channel when trying to break into the Japanese market.

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What Is Shopify and How Does It Work?

Shopify is positioned to be a complete ecommerce platform that allows businesses to access a wide variety of features through one of its membership tiers. When selling online with this platform, the key things you’ll need to build and market an online store are provided “out of the box”. There are a few caveats to this that we’ll discuss later, but this includes design templates, a payment processor, a blog, email marketing tools, and a collection of apps you can choose to add to your system.

Fully Hosted vs. Self Hosted

Shopify is a ‘fully hosted’ solution, which means that it runs on its own servers. You don’t have to buy web hosting or install software and if your requirements are simple you won’t need assistance from a professional web developer or designer.

As a member, you will pay a monthly fee to keep your online store running, giving you access to the site’s tools and features from anywhere in the world.

  • A self-hosted ecommerce solution is where your company will be responsible for managing the hosting itself, meaning you will need to set-up a server with your store’s files and data maintained by your team. This can give you more control over the customer experience you offer to visitors, but the burden of managing everything yourself could be more than you can handle.
  • Fully-hosted ecommerce solutions are designed to offer businesses an easy out of box experience where they will help you set up your site with the help of tools and features. This method requires minimal technical capabilities. Other popular hosted options include BigCommerce, Wix, Magento, and WooCommerce. There are also some local Japanese players like EC Cube.

HB Pro Tip: There are many benefits to using a hosted platform in Japan, but this doesn’t rule out the benefits of having a solid web development and technical team to help you optimise your system, customise the user experience, and make sure your website is completely localized to Japanese web design preferences.

Themes and Out-of-box Features

Example of themes available on Shopify in Japan

So what Shopify actually offers you as an online seller? One of the biggest benefits is easy-to-use themes that can be quickly implemented to make your site look professional. With minimal wait time until you can go live, this can be incredibly useful to foreign sellers who are keen to start selling in Japan as fast as possible.

Generally, these themes can be customized to meet your own branding requirements and allow you to sell either physical or digital products. This is all accessible within the platform’s user interface, which is identical whether you’re using it in Japan or any other country.

The idea is that you won’t need any coding or design skills to build a basic online store yourself. However, if your needs go beyond the basics and you’re looking to truly maximize the impact of your website, the platform lets developers access HTML and CSS too.

Foreign merchants who choose Shopify must remember that web design trends in Japan can vary significantly from those in their home market. While themes are great, many are Western-focused and simply replicating the approach you used elsewhere might not be effective in Japan. To succeed, it’s necessary to localize your approach and align with Japanese UX preferences. So this means you’ll need to go beyond Shopify’s basic themes, which might require you to pay extra (more on pricing below).

HB Pro Tip: Aspects of the Shopify checkout process are adapted to be more friendly to Japan users, such as address fields. However, you may run into some trouble when you need to customize beyond basic themes, especially if you run a semi-custom Shopify site rather than building the site from scratch or simply relying on the theme configuration. While small text-based changes won’t be hard to execute, other more extensive modifications could be more difficult.

Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
Shopify received the highest score for features and customer satisfaction from websitebuilderexpert.com, with an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5. The platform enforces its own transaction fee unless your membership tier gives you access to Shopify Payments.
It comes with an easy to use and scalable inventory system to help you manage your sales. Web content doesn’t automatically reformat when you switch themes inside the platform.
Allows you to sell across multiple channels, including Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, and eBay. There are a number of apps and integrations but not all of these are free to use, and the cost of extra features can add up.
Free basic themes can help you launch your site speedily and with minimal developer support. Basic themes can be somewhat limited for enterprise businesses with complex web design needs.

Thinking of Selling on Amazon too? Review the Pros and Cons Here

How Much Does It Cost?

Business owner considers costs of using shopify in Japan

Whether you’re in Japan or not, the price you pay will largely reflect the same options you’ll have in other markets, like the US and Europe. These are:

 

Pricing Option US Dollars Japanese Yen
Shopify Lite $9 ¥1,000
Basic Shopify $29 ¥3,100
Shopify $79 ¥8,600
Advanced Shopify $299 ¥32,300
Shopify Plus Custom pricing Custom pricing

HB Pro Tip: There are a few ways to save money if you’re willing to pay upfront for longer periods. For example, you can receive a 10% discount if you pay for one year, or 20% if you pay for two. Also, there is also a free 14-day trial available, which can help you determine if Shopify is right for you before you commit. Launching a test site and playing around with its features is highly recommended.

What’s the Difference?

All of Shopify’s plans (apart from ‘Lite’) provide free templates, inventory management features and the ability to use a wide range of third party apps. However, there are a few features and options that might change depending on your membership level. There are:

  • Transaction/credit card fees — These generally get lower as you enter the higher Shopify tiers.
  • Shipping discounts — More expensive plans may offer certain shipping discounts and benefits, spending on your location. Also, only the ‘Advanced Shopify’ plan and above allow you to avail of real-time carrier shipping options from a preferred carrier.
  • Exchange rates — The ‘Shopify’ or ‘Advanced Shopify’ plans let you set your own exchange rates.
  • Staff accounts — As you pay more, you’ll be able to set up user accounts for more of your staff.
  • Reporting — Advanced reporting functionality is only available with the ‘Shopify’ plan and above.
  • Inventory locations — The number of retail stores, warehouses, pop-ups you assign inventory to will change depending on your plan.

Shopify Presence in Japan

Global representation of Shopify’s presence for those considering Shopify in Japan

Compared to stores set up on other platforms like Rakuten, Shopify’s presence is modest. However, we’ve seen the number of active stores in Japan shoot up significantly over the last four years with brands ranging from Verve Coffee, the independent coffee chain to Swiss chocolate brand Lindt.

Shopify Store Growth in Japan

Year Active Stores
2017 429
2018 703
2019 1,605
2020 3,782
2021 10,684

Popular Categories in Japan

Category Stores
Apparel 949
Food & Drink 321
Beauty & Fitness 268
Home & Garden 223
Sports 143
None 8,154

Source: StoreLeads

Together with an ambitious push to develop a presence in Japan that matches other markets, it’s likely this trend is set to continue. When interviewed in 2019 on the topic of Shopify’s growth and vision in Japan, Shopify Country Manager Mark Wang commented: “We are very much merchant focused, so we just want to be the go-to, most featured and most return-on-investment-positive platform in the minds of merchants looking to launch a store in Japan”.

Major Considerations when Using Shopify in Japan

Woman using mobile ecommerce platform built on Shopify in Japan

Shopify is favoured internationally for its easy-to-use merchant interface and dashboard that allows businesses to manage their stores with minimal technical requirements. And while the platform does offer a fairly robust content management system (CMS), considering the wider needs of your business in relation to the platform’s offerings is still important.

SEO Support and Functionality

SEO is such an important factor of success if you’re trying to sell online in Japan. It’s crucial for making sure you appear in the right search results in Google and Yahoo when potential customers are searching online for products to buy. It’s also foundational to the kind of experience people will have when visiting your site.

So the question is, Is Shopify good when it comes to SEO? The short answer is yes. It’s designed to be “marketer friendly” with a number of in-platform SEO tools and features to help with on-page SEO. Quick and simple content uploads through the blog feature will also let your team publish SEO-optimized blog content to improve your search ranking with minimal effort.

However, it’s worth noting that the content management abilities on Shopify don’t rival some other platforms like WordPress, which gives you more control over your content and marketing strategies and offers you out-of-box access to the leading SEO plugin from Yoast.

In terms of displaying content across device types, Shopify’s themes are all responsive. App integrations can also display all your products and pages in Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) format (a kind of streamlined version of your content) to increase the speed of content delivery to mobile shoppers, which can lead to preferential placement in search results and greater SEO potential.

HB Pro Tip: Shopify lets you customise your URLs, but it does add prefixes to your pages and products, i.e. /pages/ before pages. Ideally, this would be avoided so that URLs can follow a simpler structure making them more accommodating to Google’s search algorithms. Also, a few small niggles persist when managing content on Shopify, such as the need to rename file names locally for any image file names you want to change or update. This can make processes time-consuming when making any wide-scale changes to your site.

Multichannel Selling and Integrations

Example of POS transaction on Shopify in Japan

Shopify allows you to sell your products in multiple places while letting you manage inventory and orders centrally in the Shopify admin dashboard. The interface lets you set up and manage a variety of ’sales channels’, including:

  • Your online store
  • Facebook
  • Messenger (you can sell directly to customers in Messenger conversations)
  • Third-party websites or locations other than your online store ( the ‘Buy Button’ allows you to embed e-commerce functionality on any website or blog.
  • Amazon
  • Instagram

HB Pro Tip: We’ve talked before about the benefits of multichannel selling and we believe it’s one of the most vital features for a Japanese ecommerce platform, as it allows you to expand your reach, increase audience sizes and maximise sales. Combining a Shopify store with other channels, as well as considering platforms like Rakuten, will help you increase your potential customer base and target niche demographics.

Large App Store with Diverse Features and Integrations

There are a number of tools included on the Shopify app store such as subscription payments, upselling, customer service and inventory management app integrations. The benefit of this is that merchants can keep up with ecommerce trends and leverage more powerful strategies for improving their online sales by accessing tailored apps and features for online sellers.

Themes

There are only 11 free theme templates (with each one coming in three different styles). There are many more to choose from, but these will come with a one-time fee. Also, if you want to customize these designs extensively, you’ll need a developer to help you here.

This is pretty standard for hosted ecommerce solutions, but it’s important to consider your branding and design strategy before you sign up for any of the platform’s plans. Larger brands with more specific needs may need to factor in the cost and build time of custom functions, features and user experiences beyond the Shopify offering.

Multi-currency Payments for Japanese Users

Displaying prices and handling checkouts in local currencies can boost sales considerably. As long as you are using its built-in payment gateway, Shopify Payments, you’ll be able to do this on the platform. However, you could also integrate this functionality through a third-party app if your plan isn’t advanced enough to give you access to this feature.

For more advice and key considerations when setting yourself up for online sales in Japan, take a look at our popular blog: Getting into Ecommerce in Japan? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.

Language Options

No matter where your buyers are, you’ll want to reach them with a seamless selling experience in their own language. However, one of the drawbacks of using Shopify is the lack of support in this area and the need for developers to rely on third-party translation solutions like app integration. While some of these will solve any issues you have with serving customers in various different languages, these can often be expensive.

HB Pro Tip: If you do go with Shopify for your multilingual storefront and are looking for the most suitable translation solutions, look for features like; automatic language detection, where customers will be redirected to their preferred language automatically; an easy customizable language switcher feature, and SEO support for translation of meta tags.

Drawbacks of Using Shopify in Japan

Business owner packaging products when selling on Shopify in Japan

Although Shopify is becoming an increasingly popular option, there are still a few major challenges and hurdles that might exist for potential merchants looking to use this as their primary vehicle for making ecommerce sales in Japan. Below are five of the most important ones in our eyes:

  1. If you’re looking for more functionality for your store, you might have to pay for it through third-party app integrations. For example, the AMP feature and other extended SEO features may only be used when you pay for the additional plugins.
  2. While Shopify is great for those who are only moderately tech-savvy, advanced customization and management might be harder to achieve through this platform. Competitors like Magento or WordPress might be worth a look for larger enterprises and brands.
  3. The platforms 11 free templates are great, but succeeding in Japan requires some serious consideration of design preferences here. A fully localized UX strategy is advised if you want your customer to build trust with you. Shopify’s templates may hinder you in this area.
  4. Shopify’s Japanese customer support is growing, but if you are having technical issues you may not always be able to receive direct help as you would in other markets the platform operates in, such as the US, UK, Australia or New Zealand. You may need to use a forum or messenger option to contact a support operative.
  5. Shopify plans are not free and the more you need, the more you’ll need to pay. Depending on your success, more advanced plans may not be feasible until you’re making stronger sales in-country. This could mean you’ll be left with the features available through more Basic plans.
  6. Other expenses also include transaction fees associated with your online sales in Japan with credit card fees being higher the less you pay for your plan. Also, ongoing subscription fees for any of the apps you need can add to your monthly running costs.

Alternatives to Shopify in Japan

Admittedly, there are many routes to selling in Japan and you don’t need to set up your own store on a hosted ecommerce platform like Shopify or WordPress. Many foreign sellers achieve success by leveraging the huge number of customers buying on one of the below platforms.

Top Ecommerce Platforms in Japan

Platform Share of Market
Amazon 52%
Rakuten Ichiba 28.7%
Yahoo! Shopping 11.3%
Au Pay Market (Wowma) 3.6%
PayPay Mall 1.3%

Source: Statista

Looking for the Best Ecommerce Platform in Japan? Here’s Our breakdown

Should I Use Shopify in Japan?

Screenshot of merchant business page for new sellers considering Shopify in Japan

Overall, Shopify is one of the most internationally popular hosted solutions for those wishing to create an online store. However, it’s prominence in Japan is far more modest than in other markets. When deciding on the best platform for your brand and product, it’s worth digging deeper into all the different options available to you here, as well as considering how you might need to adapt your strategy for the Japanese market.

If you need help learning more about this topic, or weighing up the costs of operating on individual ecommerce platforms, get in touch. We’ve helped a number of international merchants drive sales in Japan through in-country strategies and can help advise you on where to put your money, based on your goals and timeline.

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