The importance of an apology in Japanese business – the story of Groupon

January 18th, 2011By Category: Work Tips

Groupon, the rapidly growing online coupon provider, has gone from a small startup in Chicago to become one of the world’s hottest web companies, one that even managed to turn down an offer to sell to Google. For the uninitiated, it takes the concept of group buying of coupons and turbo charges it through apps, email and its website.

It’s something that naturally found a home in Japan where a number of similar sites sprung up, all catering to different tastes and markets. Late last year, Groupon purchased one of those companies and has been formalizing its presence here ever since – you might have seen its grating TV ads on Japanese networks (see below if not).

However, yesterday the company CEO took time out from that explosive growth to apologize to Japanese customers for a New Year’s deal gone wrong that highlighted the difficulties the company faces in managing its expansion across different cultures.

In a subtitled video message uploaded onto YouTube, the company’s founder and CEO Andrew Mason acknowledged that the company had “really messed up” and outlined steps it was taking to rebuild its tarnished image in Japan.

“We created Groupon to help enrich people’s lives by bringing new exciting experiences to them,” he said. “So when we do the opposite, as we have in this case, it really hurts.”

The blunder that prompted Mason’s apology involved a deal for delivery of “osechi,” which is a traditional New Year’s meal. Osechi usually includes a variety of Japanese dishes painstakingly prepared and beautifully presented.

Unfortunately, some customers who paid 10,500 yen for this particular bargain were left feeling like they had been duped.

Many of the 500 osechi sets sold arrived late, while others’ meals were in “terrible condition,” Mason said. In an explanation earlier this month, Groupon Japan said the sets didn’t match the picture or description provided by the restaurant, Bird Cafe, which was overwhelmed by the volume.

Angry customers took to the Internet, posting pictures of the underwhelming delivery on message boards, triggering a slew of criticism and bad publicity for the company.

Groupon subsequently refunded customers’ money and offered them vouchers worth 5,000 yen — a move which so far that seems a fair amount of Japanese will be satisfied with. It is similar to apologies done by Japanese executives (Toyota, for example) when they blunder, though Japanese media did note the failure of Mason to bow deeply. If you screw up in business in Japan, be sure to apologize asap (and bow).

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • SATAN says:

    Whinging little jap biatches – can’t move economy upwards because too worried about whinging, shopping and doing hair. Didn’t match the picture, when does food ever match the picture!!! shows how sooo retarded japs are!!!!

  • USA says:

    Japanese business is corrupt and the dumb idiots have no idea and just look for any excuse to blame foreigners because they still haven’t accepted we beat their sorry ass in world war 2. You were and still are a failure Japan!!!!

  • Robin says:

    Thanks for the note – we have edited the article text.

  • Yakineko22 says:

    Quoting “you might of seen its” from above… “Might of”? Seriously? Don’t you mean “might HAVE”? Are we 12?

  • Curioussaint says:

    I dont see why is it Groupons fail. A J business F*cked up a bunch of J costumers, just as always. Groupn is just the advertisint media, like Hot Pepper or Google. Why would they be responsable? An on the other hand, I never seen e.g. Shiroi Koibo bow deeply, refund all the money and give out couplons all the zillion costumers they cheated deliberatly.

  • There’s still a lot to learn especially about establishing a business in a conservative environment such as Japan. This apology from Andrew Mason is the initial step and more companies should take note of this.