Buying Budhist priests via Amazon: Minrevi’s challenge to transform Japan’s funerals

Minrevi Co., Ltd., founded in 2009, is now challenging to transform one of the most traditional area of business: Japanese funeral industry. To correct the market failures exist in the industry, Minrevi offers series of untraditional services such as "funeral in space," "priests delivery via Amazon," and so on.

Minrevi Co. Ltd since 2009 screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-38-22-am

In 2009, as one of three founding members of Minrevi Co. Ltd., I wrote its concept then on the website: “help low-tech industry with IT.” We originally launched two web services: Shika-revi (“歯科レビ” meaning “dentistry-review”) for a dental industry and Sougi-revi (“葬儀レビ” meaning “funeral-review”) for funeral homes back then.

Building the websites, developing basic strategies, creating sales materials, implementing sales scripts, executing hundreds jump-in sales and cold-calls everyday, engineering SEO, sometimes staying at the small office, we developed the services. Though I left the company after six months of the foundation finding my enthusiasm in another industry, the company has further developed its business, especially for funerals since then, and has recently increased its media exposure due to its dramatic impacted the industry.

Japan’s funeral industry

While the world’s fastest aging society makes funerals as twice frequent as weddings in Japan [1], the funerals in Japan are among the costliest in the world; it often costs $10,000 to $30,000[2] even though they are priced opaquely.

Most Japanese funerals are conducted in Buddhist style, and the ceremonies are mostly arranged by professional funeral houses. In the ceremony, Buddhist priests attend, recite sutras, and give kaimyou (“戒名” or “a posthumous Buddhist name”). After the funeral, hoyo (“法要” or “memorial services”) are held in memory of the deceased on the seventh, forty-ninth, hundredth day, and a year after death, and so on, where Buddhist priests attend to recite sutras.

The market size of funeral business is about 2.2 trillion-yen (about 20 billion-dollars) in 2013, consisting of setting-up/proceeding/funeral outfit(48%), facilities(5.5%), food & beverage(11.6%), flower(11.5%), reciprocal present(14.7%), others(6.8%)[3]. Adding the market size of tombs and Buddhist altars, etc., it reaches to about 4 trillion-yen (about 40 billion-dollars). Regardless of the market size seemingly matured, however, due to the characteristics of the funeral which is often unexpected and needs to be taken place suddenly and traditionally less competitive business as a bereaved family usually used a funeral house in a region, a price has been less transparent without a mean to check the validity of the price. In addition, the ofuse (“お布施”or “offering”) to the priest for the sutras at the funeral and hoyo and kaimyou were very expensive even though there were no explicit “price.”

funerals-in-japan

Minrevi’s business and operation model

Minrevi’s business model is to correct the market failure of the low-tech industry by IT. Minrevi has launched many services related to funerals industry after I left, including e-commerce for tombs and Buddhist altar, a floor delivery service, or even a “funeral in space” service collaborating with a California-based company. Yet I will elaborate business models of three services which have contributed to transform the industry the most: Sougi-revi, Simple-na-Ososhiki, and Obosan-bin.

Sougi-revi

Sougi-revi, one of the original services, offered a mean for customers to acquire a fair price by comparing estimates from at most five funeral homes from more than five hundred partners Minrevi reached nationwide for over the seven years. Once an operator of Minrevi who is available twenty-four hours, 365days, received a call or an e-mail, he/she quickly sends back the comparison lists to the potential customer and he/she can choose if want. The potential customer can also take advantage of the operator advisory, and follow-up if he/she commits to use one of the funeral houses, on complicated funeral preparation processes. [4]

Simple-na-Ososhiki(“シンプルなお葬式” meaning “simple funeral”)

In August 2013, Minrevi started to offer original fixed-charge plans for the funeral ceremony. By simplifying the ceremony and utilizing a vacant funeral house from their partners, the most affordable plan starts from 14,800-yen (about 1,500-dollar), one of the lowest cost in Japan, without any additional[5].

Obosan-bin(“お坊さん便” meaning “Mr. monk-delivery”)

In May 2013, three months before launching Simple-na-Ososhiki, Minrevi also launched an epoch-making service to deliver Buddhist priests for funerals or above mentioned hoyo and kaimyo at a fixed-charge. Especially, after Minrevi started to sell the service through Amazon.co.jp after December 2015, it provoked controversy and more than 560 medias, not only in Japan but also in ten countries featured the service by February 2016[6]. While there are many who do not have accesses to Buddhist priests when they need, and the service provide the way, the Buddhist association instituted that the business should not monetarize any religion. However, as described in beginning, ofuse implicitly required by Buddhist priests is often expensive and can sometimes cost ten-times as Minrevi offer through amazon depending on the grades of services[7]. Ironically, more than a hundred priests came forward to registrations after the dispute made the service prominent.

Though there may be many obstacles or oppositions when you try to change a stereotype. It is not easy to tell who is right or not, but what you can do is to do what you believe. This month, Minrevi just started to provide web-payment-service first time in the industry. Minrevi should just keep going their way with the integrity.

(799words)

Sources:

 

[1]Leo Lewis, “Japanese investors grapple with wedding versus funeral bet” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/4cff1d66-a278-11e6-82c3-4351ce86813f Accessed 17 November 2016.

[2] “Temples of doom” The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21677261-japans-buddhist-temples-are-going-out-business-temples-doom Accessed 17 November 2016.

[3]Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s website: Statistics of industries. http://www.meti.go.jp/statistics/tyo/tokusabizi/result-2/h25/pdf/h25outline22.pdf Accessed 17 November 2016.

[4] Sougirevi “What is Sougirevi?”https://sougi.minrevi.jp/sogirevi/ Accessed 17 November 2016.

[5] Simple-na-osoushiki “explanations about plans” http://www.xn--t8j4c7dy42mj9kt8e4tsjg7cfa.net/plan/ Accessed 17 November 2016.

[6] Minrevi’s website: Press Release on 22 February 2016.  http://www.minrevi.co.jp/news/news160222/ Accessed 17 November 2016.

[7] Jonathan Soble, “Japan’s Newest Technology Innovation: Priest Delivery” TheNew York Times,  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/business/international/amazon-japan-delivers-priest.html?_r=0 Accessed 17 November 2016.

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5 thoughts on “Buying Budhist priests via Amazon: Minrevi’s challenge to transform Japan’s funerals

  1. This article is very interesting. A few years ago, some companies in my country started to use technology-based solutions in this space – even though the solutions were much simpler (e.g., streaming the funeral via web, so that relatives or friends living in other cities/countries could watch it and be part of such difficult moment for their loved-ones).
    I would be curious to know your opinions on how Minrevi could accelerate the adoption of its services. Do you think they can manage to grow aggressively? I do not know the Japanese context in details, but would guess it is tricky to market your services or even deliberately “explore” avenues for growth when you are selling funeral services.

  2. Katsu, this is a fascinating topic. I wonder for certain industries like funeral services, perhaps the emotional aspect will always be more important in the decision making process, rather than the optimization of price and quality. The value proposition of Minrevi is clear, but how can Minrevi establish emotional trust with its target customers? I wonder if there are a generational difference as well, and that the younger generation will be more open to using a digital service to select a funeral home. I like Eduardo’s idea of adding additional technology-based services like streaming the funeral to relatives and friends. Perhaps if Minrevi and differentiate its offering with technology itself, the stigma against technology will erode over time.

  3. Great post Katsu! This is a really fascinating business concept. It seems like such a great value add to grieving families to be able to efficiently obtain priest service at fair prices. I wonder what other similar industries this model could be applied to where there is uncertainty about pricing and high customer willingness to pay. I also wonder if consumers in other countries would respond to the “priest on demand” model. I am not very familiar with funerals here in the US, but get the sense that people often hire priests they already know through their churches. I wonder if consumers would be willing to sway from that typical behavior.

  4. Really interesting topic, Katsu, and one that demonstrates just how great a range of industries can seize on opportunities offered through digital transformation. The funeral industry is one in which there is a great deal of information asymmetry between the provider and the customer, and the system you describe creates incredible value for both parties. I think that perhaps the greatest value this platform offers is the ability for a customer to view prices in real time across competitors in an industry that is traditionally based on more personal relationships. I do think that the issue of “monetizing religion” is one that is potentially thorny, and I wonder how well this model could expand into other countries where the role of religion in society may vary.

  5. Talk about an business with a large market size! This is such a good example of an industry that may have considered itself immune from digital transformation but has used technology to update its offering and expand to new markets. I’m impressed at how Minrevi has integrated digitization into the downstream business model (marketing through channels such as Amazon) and upstream (uploading information from service providers and comparing them). This example, more than any other, convinces me that ultimately there will be no business that is not online.

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