If you want to be the first on your block to experience the newest, hippest Japanese import since the Tamagotchi (the “virtual pet”), make a quick trip down to the Yaohan supermarket here or in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.
Next to the checkout counter, you’ll find one of the brightly colored boxes that have teenage girls lined up 20-deep in Tokyo video arcades and trendy boutiques.
A latter-day cousin of the old photo booths that used to be found inside five-and-dime stores, these machines produce tiny, personalized photo stickers that have become a hit among Japanese teenagers. The kids collect them like baseball cards and use them to decorate key chains, letters and other personal items.
The main competitors--SNK Corp., which makes the Neoprint-brand machine, and Atlus Co., maker of the Print Club--are betting that America’s teens will be just as mesmerized as their Japanese counterparts. In 1995, they spent an estimated $850 million on the Print Club machines alone.
Print Club, the industry front-runner, has 16,000 machines in Japan averaging 100 uses apiece each day. But Neoprint is the first to reach the United States.
After several months of test-marketing the product in Southern California locations--including the Yaohan stores, shopping malls and the UCLA campus--SNK’s American subsidiary is expanding the Neoprint presence to another two dozen locations.
It has even installed one Neoprint machine in the window of the Limited Too store at South Coast Plaza.
“This is going to be another one of these very hot products,” Stacey Sujishi declared. Sujishi is marketing director for SNK Corp. of America, whose Osaka-based parent company makes the popular arcade games King of Fighters and Fatal Fury.
Lawrence Hsu, assistant manager at Yaohan’s downtown location, knows the price of success. During busy times, he sometimes has trouble getting people to stop putting money in the machine.
“I try to turn it off 15 minutes before closing, but it’s hard to persuade those people we need to close it down,” he said.
The booths carry replaceable cartridges with a variety of photo frames. For $3, a customer purchases a 4-inch-square sheet containing a variety of photo stickers with several different frames. The customer can get them printed in black and white, color or sepia tones.
In Japan the frames are decorated with colorful borders, emblazoned with special sayings and adorned with the photos of pop figures. Kids put them in sticker books and use them to decorate birthday invitations and create greeting cards. They memorialize their prom nights, graduation and family celebrations.
Leave it to Japanese game companies, the masters of adaptation, to turn a simple idea into a me-too phenomenon. They initially used the machines to target young Japanese girls as part of a campaign to get them into the video arcades that had traditionally been a male bastion, according to James Takenaka, marketing director for Atlus, which expects to introduce its Print Club machine to the U.S. and European markets this fall.
But these Japanese game makers hope to expand their audience in the U.S. by providing frames that appeal to young men, with depictions of sports stars and musicians.
Takenaka unveiled the concept at the Licensing ’97 International show in New York this week, where he hopes to pick up the rights to some prominent U.S. brand names. In Japan, Atlus holds the licenses to characters from Loony Tunes, Disney products and “Sesame Street” in addition to the most popular Japanese animation show.
“People like taking pictures,” Takenaka said. “So as long as we collect the licenses of American pop culture, we see it [this phenomenon] crossing over from Japan.”
Sujishi, of SNK Corp., doesn’t think the idea should stop with kids.
“Pet stores are calling me because they want to put it [the Neoprint machine] into their stores,” she said. “I guess pets are considered part of the family.”
Evelyn Iritani can be reached by fax at (213) 237-7837 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.