912 and the shoes that fit
Mari Tobita Johnson isn’t an expat, but she’s married to one. Her husband Chuck Johnson is an American actor and stuntman who has been living in Tokyo since 2003. The two met at a music event six years ago and have been together ever since.
Through their relationship, the Tokyo native learned about some of the Western frustrations of living in Japan. “Chuck always told me how a lot of his foreign female friends complained that they couldn’t find cute shoes they like in their sizes.” I had lunch with Mari last week to learn about how and why her web shop, Nine-Twelve, was born.
Even with years of fashion experience, she started small, with a Yahoo! Auction site to test what styles would sell and what wouldn’t. The business quickly took off, and once she secured warehouse space in Tokyo, she was ready to go live with a solid web presence. “When we started I had about six years of experience importing goods into Japan, so [Chuck] encouraged me to start a web shop. I built it from scratch.”
The site quickly grew into one of the largest retailers of large-size footwear in the country. They carry small sizes too (22.5), all the way up to 29, and can special order sizes. And it’s not just the product need she’s filling—Nine-Twelve offers C.O.D. on all shoe orders because Mari learned many expats don’t have Japanese credit cards. Mari’s blended community gave her insight into the practical needs of her expat customer base, and she built her business around those needs. She’ll even make warehouse appointments to try on shoes, “Foreigners love to try on,” she mused.
That said, Nine-Twelve customers aren’t all expat girls. “I get orders from Japanese female basketball players, volleyball players, Judo fighters, even from the transgender community. I’m surprised how diverse our customer base has become.”
Mari never set out to become an entrepreneur, but she loves being an independent business woman and is thrilled to be filling a need for the expat community. “One of my favorite things about Nine-Twelve is the letters I get from customers. They thank me profusely for having cute shoes that fit! It’s totally unnecessary, but it really makes me happy.”
What advice does she have for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to take the plunge? “Don’t quit your day job. Start small and test what sells. A lot of people think it takes a huge investment or a massive commitment to start a business. Find a need, see what works, adjust, and watch it grow.”
Female entrepreneur, local/expat couple, and an indie shop that makes doing business easy and shoe shopping fun again. Check out her shop at http://912shop.net.