JAPAN: are TV consumers nesting, resting or giving new sets the swerve?

Some interesting figures coming out of Japan at the moment about TV sales, not least a healthy increase in the uptake of larger flatscreens.

But look a little closer and things aren't quite as clear as they seem.

Research company BCN, which analyses data from electronic sales systems used by retailers, says that 31.3% more TVs were bought in Japan last month than in February 2008. And much of the running was made by screens of 40in or above.

However, the volume increase wasn't matched by gains by value: that was up just 14.3%, despite the larger screens being bought. The average price paid last month was ¥102,800, or around £755.

Also up were sales of DVD and Blu-ray Disc recorders, showing year-on-year gains of 28%, helped in no small part by consumers buying a TV and a recorder as a package.

BCN reckons that the boom in TV buying is, paradoxically, down to the economic crisis: people can't afford to buy cars and other big-ticket items, so they're turning to more affordable home electronics instead. You just can't keep the Japanese away from their national hobby – shopping.

Ready for digital switchover
All well and good so far, but BCN also reports that Japanese sales of set-top boxes for digital terrestrial TV are exploding, ahead of an analogue TV switch-off due in Summer 2011.

Sales of digital STBs in December and January were double those of the same period a year ago, and last month saw sales 3.4 times as high as in February 2007, BCN saying that cost-conscious consumers are avoiding buying a new TV in favour of the cheaper add-on box alternative.

That's being helped by tumbling prices: the set-top boxes once cost £300-£350 in Japan, but now prices are down to an average of ¥13,900, or just over £100.

Dark days in the glass business

However, the companies making the most basic raw material for LCD TVs – the glass – seem unconvinced about the future health of the market. Nippon Electric Glass, which has added more glass-making kilns every year since 2002, is curtailing its expansion, and will only be investing half as much next year as it did in the past 12 months.

It's also halting plans to build new processing lines in Japan and Taiwan, citing a fall in demand for the glass substrates on which LCD screens are made. The company says its existing facilities have only been running at 50% capacity since December.

The same is true of Sumitomo Chemical, which makes polarising plates for LCD panels. It's been running at half-speed at plants in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, while glass-maker Asahi Glass is also delaying the start of building new plants in South Korea and Taiwan.

It seems that while Japanese consumers are buying more TVs, they're not buying as many as they could – and that, plus declining overseas sales, makes the glass-makers see things as more half-empty than half-full.

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.