Hidden SME Champions


Bringing the beauty of Kyoto’s seasonal flowers to the world through online retail

An established Kyoto florist shop embraces e-commerce

KYOTO OMURO is a well-established florist, located in front of the gates of Kyoto’s prestigious Ninnaji, a world heritage temple. It is the only store granted authority to sell flowers over-the-counter within the temple grounds. But despite its traditional bearings, the shop also has a big presence online, embracing e-commerce as a means of bringing its products to global customers.

“I wanted to share the beauty of Kyoto’s seasonal flowers – the cherry blossoms of spring, the water lilies of summer, the red maple leaves of autumn and the camellias of winter – with the rest of the world,” says Soki Shimamoto, chief executive officer and shop master of KYOTO OMURO.

Backed by this desire, Shimamoto’s firm launched its original “Kyoto mini-bonsai” series, a unique line of potted seasonal flowers which are carefully grown by expert craftsmen and which can recreate a burst of Japanese beauty on any tabletop. The product soon caught on, gaining increased popularity through e-commerce, first in Japan and then abroad, particularly in Asia. Currently, some 80% of KYOTO OMURO’s sales come from online retail, of which 30% are overseas sales.

Encountering optical fibers

KYOTO OMURO was founded in 1955 as a family business. Shimamoto’s older brother was initially set to take over the shop from his father, but unfortunately passed away following an untimely accident. Several years later, his father also passed away, leaving the business to Shimamoto, who at the time was a marketing manager at a major foreign consumer goods company. Shimamoto resigned from his job and became the fourth generation owner of the store in November 2011. While he had little experience in running a florist, having grown up among flowers, he had a keen understanding of their beauty and delicacy and harbored an inherent love for flowers. As he threw himself into his new job, he was acutely reminded of the beauty of Kyoto’s seasons and started to dream of sharing this beauty with a wider audience.

The first thing Shimamoto did after taking over was to challenge Japan’s conventional distribution system. Generally, a flower shop will purchase flowers from a market through brokers, which takes time and results in diminishing their freshness and leaving the customer with little time to enjoy them in full bloom. Shimamoto’s solution was to purchase flowers directly from the producers, increasing longevity and improving pricing to the benefit of both the producers and customers. Shimamoto traveled the country to look for producers to purchase from, learning about the flower business and flower cultivation in the process.

It was then he came up with the idea to capture seasonal flowers in a mini-bonsai pot as a means of bringing Kyoto’s seasons into the households of his customers. The Kyoto mini bonsai series gradually took hold, and a year and a half after being launched, it was featured in several local media outlets and became the shop’s trademark product. Orders started to come in from across the country, and he made the decision to start selling them online – greatly improving sales.

Branching out overseas was the next step in realizing Shimamoto’s initial goal of enabling people living abroad to experience the same joy of having a piece of Japan’s seasonal beauty in their households.

Kyoto is a hugely popular destination for overseas tourists, particularly in the spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and in autumn, when leaves turn bright red and yellow. Foreign visitors to Ninnaji increase during these months, and many take a keen interest in the bonsai pots sold on-site at KYOTO OMURO. Many of them would also ask if there was a way to bring the pots back home with them. Each time the question was posed, Shimamoto would try to work out how that would be possible. However, to exports plants abroad, the firm would need to overcome strict quarantine restrictions, conduct soil inspection and analysis of foreign countries, complete large amounts of time-consuming paperwork and also bear transport costs, all of which are overwhelming burdens for a small business. The obstacles for branching out overseas seemed “mind-boggling high,” at the time, recalls Shimamoto. But once the domestic business was up and running, Shimamoto studied up on plant quarantine and transport methods in order to embark overseas.

A virtuous cycle of overseas online retail and over-the-counter sales

As a start, he opened a promotional store in Singapore to conduct over-the-counter sales to customers on the ground. The physical store would move locations each month, for example setting up shop near a famous botanical garden, then a Japanese department store, and promote the mini-bonsai products. The customers who visited the store would then show interest in the florist’s other products and go online to find them. While it may seem redundant to have both a physical and online shop and more cost-efficient to just be online, Shimamoto points out that bonsai are live plants that require detailed explanations on how to maintain and take care of them. In order to reassure customers about the quality and trustworthiness of the products, face-to-face communications over the counter was critical, he says.

“The physical store helped supplement our online presence and helped our physical customers become our new online customers,” said Shimamoto of the virtuous cycle between his physical and online presence.

Using public support programs, such as grants from SME SUPPORT JAPAN, Shimamoto created an online English site for KYOTO OMURO targeting overseas sales. As he gained know-how on cross border e-commerce, he extended his foothold in other Asian markets, such as Thailand and Vietnam. He is now eyeing the European market.

Shimamoto is also always looking for new ways to bring the essence of Japan to his customers. Recently, the shop started sales of a new product, a boxed Japanese dry landscape rock garden, in response to the influx of foreign visitors to Japan. From April, the firm is planning to release another new product, “bonsai seeds.” Branching out from flowers, Shimamoto is also looking at the possibility of exporting Japanese sake, made with Kyoto-grown crops.

“I want to keep bringing the splendor of Kyoto the rest of the world,” he said.


Tel. 075-465-5005 / Fax. 075-465-5007
Website. http://kyoto-omuro.jp

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