Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 11 News List

US, Europe unready for super-toilets, but Japan is patient

ULTRA-LOO Consumers in Japan may take control panels on their porcelain for granted, but the rest of the world is ambivalent about high-tech lavatories


It looks like the perfect business opportunity. Every house has one. Everyone uses them. And one Japanese company is making the most technologically advanced products of their kind.

But while the world may beat a path to your door for building a better mousetrap, Toto Ltd has found that selling a better toilet requires more patience.

Toto, the world's dominant maker of high-tech loos, made toilet history in 1980 when, improving on a US model that combined the bidet and the toilet, it produced the "washlet" -- bringing warm water to the user's nether regions.

"We did what others were reluctant to try -- we brought electronics into the water closet," said Hiroshi Kobayashi, Toto's general manager of restroom product research.

Sometimes dubbed "super-thrones," top-of-the-line washlets now come with wall-mounted control panels as sleek and complex as those of stereo systems.

Their manifold buttons allow adjustment of the nozzle position, water pressure and type of spray, plus blow-drying, air purification and seat warming for those cold winter mornings. Water and seat temperatures are adjustable.

The controls can also be set so the lid rises as the toilet is approached.

Japan has embraced the high-tech toilet. Government statistics show that combined toilet/bidets are now installed in 52 percent of Japanese homes compared to just 14 percent in 1992.

Toto -- which employs around 1,500 engineers -- dominates that market with a 65 percent share. Its closest rival, Japan's Inax Corp, trails at 25 percent. Numbers for Japan's overall toilet market share are similar.

But where Sony's Playstation, Toyota Corollas and Pokemon have all blazed paths into western popular culture, Toto's high-tech thrones have not traveled well.

Toto officials blame matters both cultural and practical.

A relatively long history of flush toilets in the US and Europe -- around 100 years -- has resulted in many competitors and cheap toilets.

Westerners just aren't used to shelling out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for high-tech versions.

Most Western bathrooms also lack an electric socket near the toilet, something that people in Japan, where central heating is rare, were keen to install when the seat-warmer was introduced.

But after making some inroads in the US with more standard models, especially with the advent of low-flow toilets in the 1990s, Toto's washlets are starting to make an impression.

Its US washlet sales, which began some eight years ago, have risen to over 1,000 units a month this year from 600 two years ago.

"It's not the same amount of numbers but the trend is very similar to what we saw in Japan 20 years ago -- low figures for about five years and then a sharp J-curve. We have great expectations for US sales next year," Kobayashi said.

But marketing toilets is not easy. Building showrooms is expensive and some analysts estimate it will take another five years before overseas revenues, now only 5 percent of Toto's total sales, climb to 10 percent.

And some cultural barriers seem to be just too hard to break -- witness the European market, where Toto has only one distributor and sells a mere 5,000 washlets annually.

"You'd think that because Europeans are used to the bidet, they'd be more interested. We just don't know why they aren't," said Kobayashi.

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