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High-tech time-saving devices spur home appliance sales boom in Japan

"Time-saving" tilted drum washer-dryers are seen on sale at the Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Akiba electronics and appliance superstore in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in December 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Michinaga)

TOKYO -- Smart home appliances incorporating AI and internet of things (IoT) technology which promise to slash time spent on household chores are flying off the shelves in Japan, propelled by the needs of double-income families.

The surge began with a banner 2019 that saw the total value of domestic shipments of refrigerators, washing machines and the like blast past 2.5 trillion yen (about $23.3 billion) for the first time in 23 years.

A recent visit to the Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Akiba electronics and appliance superstore in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward found "time-saving" dishwashers-plus-driers, robotic vacuum cleaners, and tilted-drum washer-dryers being promoted as the "new three sacred treasures" -- a reference to the TV, fridge and washing machine trio of modern amenities sought after by Japanese households from the late 1950s.

Meanwhile, sales of refrigerators have apparently been driven by models with capacities of 500 liters or more, and those with freezers designed to preserve the fresh taste of premade food. Yodobashi employee Hiroaki Hasegawa, who holds a "home appliance advisor" qualification, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Compared to 10 years ago, today's (fridges) have much better energy-saving features, while vegetable crispers' functions are completely new. High-priced, feature-packed models are selling better than cheap, low-feature fridges, even when they're made by the same company."

Sharp Corp. automatic cooking pots are seen on display in Tokyo's Minato Ward in November 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Michinaga)

According to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers' Association (JEMA), firms shipped just over 2.51 trillion-yen worth of home appliances for the domestic market last year, a 2.7% increase from 2018 and the fourth annual rise in a row. The 10.1% spike in washing machine shipment values and 3.3% rise for fridges was driven by demand for large-capacity models, allowing buyers to do a lot of laundry or buy a lot of groceries at once. Furthermore, shipment values of washer-dryers rose 17.7% in 2019 over 2018.

One major factor in the shift to more expensive home appliances is Japanese people's changing lifestyles. Japanese government data shows that households with two working parents have outnumbered those with stay-at-home wives since 1997, and the trend has only intensified. In 2018, there were some 12.19 million double-income families in Japan, or more than twice the around 6 million households with the wife at home. Meanwhile, there are also increasing numbers of people living alone. The government estimates that single elderly people will make up more than 30% of all Japanese households in 2040.

With these social trends in play, even as overall consumer spending shrank following October 2019's sales tax hike from 8% to 10%, home appliance sales "weren't affected at all," said Yodobashi's Hasegawa. "I don't think our customers were panicked by the tax rise; they're just choosing their purchases very carefully."

One strong runner in the time-saving appliances market over recent years has been automatic cooking pots. The chef in a hurry only has to put the ingredients into the machine, select the desired stewed dish from the menu display, and the pot does the rest. It even stirs itself. Models with AI technology can also suggest dishes based on analysis of the user's eating habits and the day's weather. There is no need to tend to the pot once it has been turned on, leaving time for other chores or activities while meals are being prepared. The machines are apparently especially popular among couples in their 20s and 30s.

A number of makers are now in on the automatic cooking pot market, including Japan's own Sharp Corp. and Panasonic Corp., as well as Tefal of France. Betting on demand not just among families with children but also single-person households and couples with no children, Sharp released a version for one to two people in November 2019. The firm expects sales of its entire automatic pot line to rise some 60% in fiscal 2019.

"We are now in an era of people buying electronics and home appliances to make their lives easier," a Sharp representative commented. "We want to make automatic cooking pots the new essential item."

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Michinaga, Business News Department)

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