While home electronics mega-stores like Bic Camera, LAOX or Yodobashi Camera are a great way to check out all the gadgets available, there are often considerably cheaper options available online that don’t require you to browse through every single electronics shopping site. Also, if you know the exact model number of the gadget you are after, then these comparison shopping sites can be a good way to track these rare items down.
The big daddy of comparison shopping sites is the hugely popular kakaku.com (site in Japanese). Kakaku.com currently has a market capitalisation of $US1.8 billion and web analytics company alexa.com ranks it as the 18th most visited site in Japan.
From a base in electronics, Kakaku.com has expanded their offering to a wide range of products and services including interior, alcoholic drinks and even funeral services, but some of these offerings tend to be tie-ups rather than true comparison shopping, so it’s still in the areas of home electronics, computers and cameras that kakaku.com excels.
How it works and how to use it without reading Japanese
Kakaku.com is a simple directory which includes almost every electronic item currently on sale in Japan. To be listed, merchants from Okinawa to Hokkaido sign-up to register their products. For each available product, kakaku.com shows a list of retailers ranked from cheapest to most expensive. Below is how it looks after the page has been put through the Google Translate plugin (if it doesn’t offer automatically, right click on the page and select ‘Translate to English’) for Google Chrome. Most of the page translates well, but there are still some areas that do not. For an explanation of the parts marked with green letters, check below.
A. This is the price comparison tab
B. The product spec. page
C. This is the deliver charge column – beware as the cheapest supplier may have a high delivery charge
D. This is the name of the retailer. The light blue blocks below are the merchant ‘reputation’ on kakaku.com To buy the product from the retailer, click on the name.
E. This is the payment method and is VERY IMPORTANT! The three payment methods available are ‘代引’ (payment on delivery), ‘振込’ (bank transfer) and ‘カード’ (credit card). Quite often, the cheapest merchants don’t offer credit card as an option. If they can save on the 2 to 3 percent credit card transaction fee, then they can offer a marginally lower price and get to the top of the ranking. As you can see in the image above, the 2nd ranked item is 1 yen more expensive, but it allows payment by credit card.
After you leave Kakaku.com, you’ll have to deal with whatever E-commerce site you land on. Some can be quite simple to use whereas others require that you go through an over-complicated sign-up procedure. If you are buying from outside Japan, it is VERY UNLIKELY that they will shop outside Japan, so you may want to consider a buying service. We’ll go into more detail in the ‘Shipping Outside Japan’ section at the bottom of the article.
If you’re searching from outside Japan, it’s a bit harder to find deals at the moment due to the high yen. However, the camera with the biggest price reduction on kakaku.com was the Olympus PEN E-PL2. This was available for 26,389yen (about $US332) which compares to the same camera on Amazon.com at $US376.94. Not a huge saving when you factor in shipping, but if you’re searching from somewhere that doesn’t have competitive camera pricing (like Australia or New Zealand) then this might still be a really good deal. Another quite good deal was the Nikon D3000 with 2 zoom lenses for 45,980yen ($US578) There is a D3000 kit with a single 18-55mm zoom lens on amazon.com for $440, but the Japanese kit includes a 55 to 200mm zoom lens as well. If the USD vs. JPY returns to it’s ‘normal’ range over the last 10 years of between 90 to 100 to the dollar then there will be some much more compelling deals.
Also, if you’re a complete camera nut and you have to have the latest model before it comes out in your home country, then you can usually find it in Japan a few months before its international release.
Kakaku.com is also a great please for larger items like TVs and even washing machines (both of which I have bought through kakaku.com). Only residents in Japan should really consider this since these devices are huge (expensive shipping) and they are unlikely to be compatible with your electrical current.
Something to be aware of when buying larger items is that various retailers may also offer free or cheap disposal/recycling of the old or broken appliance which you are replacing. If you can get your broken washing machine taken away (a not inconsiderable cost) for free then it’s well worth including this in your calculations.
Computers and Parts
When buying computers online, be aware that the pre-installed OS will be in Japanese and it will of course have a Japanese keyboard (the alphabet keys are in the same place but they have additional characters on them). If you buy a Mac, changing the OS language is pretty easy. It can be a little more challenging on Windows.
If you’re a hobbyist, or you just like tinkering with computers, kakaku.com can be a great place to search for stuff as it has a comprehensive list of parts. So if you’re after an obscure type of RAM board or the latest sound card, you’ll find it on kakaku.com
Shipping outside Japan and what to be aware of
When shipping outside Japan, you should consider the following carefully.
- You probably won’t have a valid warranty for your home country – replacement or refund will probably require its return to Japan
- It will have a Japanese wall plug. Most modern (small) gadgets adapt for the current, but you’ll still need an adapter for the wall
- There will be either no English manual, or a few pages at the end of the manual (intended for the small English speaking market in Japan). Luckily, there are lots of places where you can download PDF manuals these days
- The intitial interface may be set to Japanese. Most international models can be changed to most major languages. However, it may be in Japanese when you switch it on. Additionally, as pointed out in the comments, the language on Sony cameras purchased in Japan cannot be changed!
- If it’s a high value item, it may attract import tax in your home country. Make sure the invoice is included wth the product, otherwise they may tax you at the estimated value which could be much more than what you paid for it! I tried sending a new camera to a friend in Europe once containing a letter saying ‘thanks for letting me borrow your camera, I’m returning it to you now’ but the local tax authorities weren’t so gullible!
Kakaku.com isn’t the only site of its kind but it’s by far the biggest. Another online comparison sites is hikaku.com.
Happy comparison shopping!
In our pilot episode, we're joined by Alvin Cheung of ABC Coffee, Hapnick, and Tokyo Keyboards