September Back-packs to School

While September is viewed as the start of the school year in the US. Japan’s school year starts in April, and my eldest son will enter the local elementary school. While there is pride as a father, there is also a sense of trepidation, as a number of decisions have to be made before April 2019.

One of the major decisions for parents is choosing a school bag. In Japan, students often carry the same bag, called a randoseru, for the entire six years of elementary school. As such, this decision is often a time-and energy-consuming process.

“Randoseru” is derived from the Dutch word for backpack, “ransel.” While Japan was closed off from much of the outside world between the 17th~late 19th century under a policy known as “sakoku” (closed country), the Dutch, mainly through the Dutch East India Trading company, maintained relations with the Japanese government and a small trading post in the port city of Nagasaki. Other words integrated into Japanese via Dutch include beer (biiru), glass (gurasu), rubber (gomu), and syringe (spoito).

The amount of choices for randoseru are truly astounding; they come in a variety of colors and styles; although black is most popular among boys and pink or blue is most popular among girls. In addition to the staid and traditional styles, manufacturers have collaborated with brands such as Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream, Snoopy, Star Wars, Sanrio, Adidas, Puma, and Converse. (Granted, while a Star Wars bag will always be out of this world, and a 6-year-old with a Baskin-Robbins themed bag might be cute now, I cannot imagine they would feel the same way 5 or 6 years later.)

Baskin-Robbins 31 themed randoseru bag in Japan

Parents often start considering bags up to a full year before their children start school, and do their research via catalogs, friends, and store visits to find the best bag. Store visits allow the children to try them out and sales staff walk around with a hefty brick-like package, designed to simulate the weight of books children will be carrying.

Boy trying on a randoseru school bag at a department store in Japan

Prices vary depending on the materials (leather or synthetic), features (pockets, straps, clips), and amount of decoration (chrome, embroidery or embossing). And while they they can range from roughly 20,000 JPY (approximately $200 USD) to over 80,000 JPY (approximately $800 USD), with the median price being in the 50,000 JPY (approximately $500 USD). In many cases, a child’s randoseru is a gift from their grandparents. As such, they are designed to be much more durable than the Jansport or Eastpack bag I used growing up.

In my family’s case, our son received an envelope with 50,000 JPY (approximately $500 USD) from his grandparents during the summer holidays. My wife and I started considering the different makers by checking various websites and visiting several stores. We were not looking for a cheap randoseru, but we also were not seeking a top of the line bag either. After two or three store visits, they all start looking the same and decision paralysis started to set in. Meanwhile, our son’s desired choices flitted from one bag to another, usually going up in price. Eventually, we were exhausted and decided it was in our best interest to just go with one. We ended up spending more than we originally anticipated, however we were glad to have made our decision. We placed our order at one of the local department stores and will take delivery in February or March.

Japanese boy hunting for a school bag at a department store in Japan.
Hunting for the perfect bag

If this was a cheaper item, I am certain that the overall process would be a lot shorter and less painful. As our son is now six years old, this represents one of the biggest purchases we have made on his behalf, with plenty more to come. Our experience was not unique to the normal customer journey; from the overload of information and choices, through decision paralysis, and to eventual capitulation. As market researchers, this type of experience is a good reminder of the importance of the customer experience. In a tried and true sales process, there are still opportunities for innovation and customization. While drowning in a sea of choices, consumers must question their appetite for variety and innovation.

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