Gadget makers seek gold in eerie Tokyo trade show

After 20 minutes with Hideyo Watanabe, I am lost in his saga of the Tanzo pouch-opener: a stainless steel implement with no moving parts that could be set to benefit from demographic change, the whims of professional kitchen investment and the pandemic.

These dreams have brought Mr Watanabe as an exhibitor to Care Show Japan, a three-day nursing-home, personal care and medical-facility themed trade fair. It would normally be just one of hundreds of such events held in Tokyo every year. Today, given Japan’s official state of emergency, it is remarkable the gathering is happening at all. 

The immense vaults of the Big Sight convention centre, with ceiling fans turned up full and widely spaced booths, accentuate the all-consuming sensitivities of holding a trade show during a pandemic. Exhibitor and visitor numbers are way down on previous years, and the weird, unsettled calculus of Covid-19 makes for glaring oddities. Big companies, organisers said, want to maintain a presence at an important industry gathering. But they cannot be seen sending staff into a potential infection cluster. Most have opted to pay for and brand their allotted space — and then leave it unattended. 

Even in ordinary times, business salesmanship demands a balance of aspiration, desperation and conviction. Trade fairs try to squeeze a whole industry’s supply of all these into one room, even if it has to be behind masks and social distancing.

Such events provide an instant snapshot of an assembled sector of the economy. There is a concentration of customers and expertise; companies from mammoths to minnows also jostle together. Nothing online can replicate it. If you are lucky, says Christopher Eve, a 30-year veteran of Tokyo trade shows and the organiser of this one, an empty hall becomes an instant community. 

Superficially, the community aspect does seem to be stirring. Small companies, for whom these shows are vital, are more effusive and co-operative in their peddling than ever before, says the representative of a company selling products based on deer placenta. Pent-up commercial instincts feel released, after nearly a year of forced bottling. Trade shows, says the manufacturer of softened meat products for care-home canteens, provide a condensed hit of person-to-person contact — the vitamin that Covid-19 has denied so many enterprises. And this show has at least partially delivered.

If there is a consensus at Care Show Japan, though, it is that many people are deciding to think of Covid-19 as part of the long term business scene, rather than assuming it will eventually be gone.

That, once the sales patter ends, is what lies behind the calculations of Mr Watanabe about his company’s lone product. This opens food bags with a single, razor-edged stroke and has the neat slogan “faster than scissors, safer than a knife”. He is a natural adapter: his growth strategy, he says, has historically depended on working out which kitchens favour knives or scissors for their pouch-opening, and adjusting the pitch accordingly.

Like any business, Tanzo is adjusting to fundamental changes in the environment. For many years, some of its largest customers were workplace canteens and Japan’s ubiquitous “family restaurants” — franchised eateries famous for value and notorious for overworking staff. The pouch openers are perfect in the white heat of these kitchens, which rely on pre-packaged ingredients. 

Covid-19, Mr Watanabe notes, has been disastrous for restaurants and workplace canteens. Even where it has not directly forced closures, it has amplified the problems of an industry serving a shrinking population. But he contends the pandemic has not altered the demand from Japan’s ever-expanding care home industry. These will be the pouch-opener’s future customers, he judges, and is why he has invested in a booth at the show.

His decision, says Mr Eve optimistically, may even pay off more effectively than before Covid. When a show is low on quantity, it may be high in quality. Only the serious visitors have braved Covid to come, he says, leaving the “office skivers and the ones who turn up to shows for the free ballpoint pens” at home.

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