Japan’s Rakuten Set to Challenge Amazon With Help From Kobo

Who is Amazon’s biggest competitor? It may be a Japanese company you’ve never heard of.

Rakuten is set on challenging Amazon’s global dominance by appealing to the third-party merchants Amazon works with today and by growing it’s digital content business to compete with the Kindle.

We recently learned about the company’s strategy through the eyes of Neel Grover, the CEO of Buy.com, Rakuten’s online shopping subsidiary in the U.S.

For now, Rakuten is admittedly Amazon’s much smaller competitor, though it is dominant in Japan.

The publicly held company is worth $14.5 billion compared to Amazon’s $85 billion market capitalization, and it pales in comparison to Amazon’s mass in the U.S. Buy.com is ranked 410th here versus Amazon’s sixth-place standing, according to Compete.

But Grover said Rakuten has a two-part plan for going up against Amazon.

First, it will target and partner with third-party resellers and merchants.

Amazon does this, too, but often ends up competing with the merchants because it has its own warehouses and products that it is selling, he said.

“Oftentimes Amazon will compete with the retailer. [Third-party merchants] teach Amazon what to buy and sell, which is ultimately not good for the merchant,” he said.

Rakuten, on the other hand, does not own any warehouses or any inventory itself and instead gives retailers — brick and mortar or e-commerce — the tools and traffic to support their own businesses.

In May 2010, Rakuten acquired Buy.com.

“I sought out Rakuten. … I thought their model was one that would give us a unique differentiator in the U.S. and we could learn and bring their model to our site and customers,” Grover said. “We are still in the final stages of transforming, and it’s taken a bit of time to get it transformed.”

But, he confidently added, “It will win out in the long-term.”

A similar approach is being taken by eBay, another e-commerce giant in the U.S.

The second part of Rakuten’s plan is to go after Amazon’s growing digital business, spanning music, e-books and other content.

In November, the Japanese company purchased Kobo, a runner-up in the e-reader race behind the Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. It paid $315 million in cash for the Canadian company.

Rakuten is banking on the Kobo in assisting with its move into providing downloadable media to consumers, starting with e-books.

At the time of the acquisition, Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis told All Things D that Rakuten will give Kobo the financial backing to grow internationally, as well as compete in the U.S.

“The U.S. is absolutely important. It’s fundamental. We have millions of U.S. users today, and we plan to grow that substantially, and internationally it represents a big opportunity as well,” he said.

Earlier this month, Buy.com started linking to Kobo from its site, so that consumers have the option of buying a physical copy of a book or a digital version. Other integration efforts are also under way.

It also wants to get into other digital content, like music. Back in 1999, Buy.com was one of the original sites to have a digital music store, but Grover said it was a pretty poor experience because of all the restrictions that record labels were mandating. A lot of that has now changed.

“We are definitely looking as a group at all digital content. … We are looking at different solutions, but today we have not continued on with our initial music store,” he said.

As with Kobo and Buy.com, acquisitions are always an option, he said.

“We’ll continue to look at everything that would make our business better. It hasn’t been shy over the past two years. We have a global vision to create an e-commerce marketplace offering all goods, and we continue to see that grow.”

And going up against Amazon, some serious growth is what Rakuten and Buy.com will need.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus