The iPhone has become the must-have smartphone for young and hip consumers around the globe. Not for Kazuko Ohara. The 81-year-old Tokyo resident is planning to buy her new handset from NTT DoCoMo, the only major Japanese carrier not selling Apple’s hit product.
“I’ve been planning to get a smartphone and try the voice app since I saw it on TV,” says Ohara, who doesn’t own a personal computer. “My eyesight is weak because I had a cataract operation. The voice app might help me write e-mails, and I want to use the map function to go places.”
That’s music to the ears of DoCoMo, which has rolled out specially designed phones and its own voice-recognition software to woo Japan’s fastest-growing demographic: the elderly. The country’s biggest mobile-phone company is counting on older subscribers to regain market share lost to iPhone-peddling rival SoftBank in the $110 billion local wireless market.
Two million users have downloaded DoCoMo’s app called Shabette Concier, which, like Apple’s Siri, lets users control their phone by voice—a big selling point among elderly subscribers who struggle with keypads. And a specially designed phone DoCoMo unveiled this spring features on-screen buttons to handle common actions such as writing an e-mail.
DoCoMo is targeting older customers for growth as Japan ages faster than any other developed society, with 23% of the population 65 or older. Oldsters there are ripe for updated handsets: Only about 6% of Japanese consumers in their 60s had a smartphone as of February, compared with 51% of people from 20 to 29, according to Tokyo-based mobile-advertising agency D2C.
“Growth for a consumer business in the coming decade relies on cultivating the elderly market,” says Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. “They tend to be affluent and loose on their purse strings.”