TOKYO – Just five years ago, Japan's electronics makers were in a sorry state. Profits were sinking as less expensive Asian rivals grabbed market share — and prices for everything from computer chips to DVD players dropped.
These days, they've found a savior: the flat-panel TV.
Big names such as Panasonic, Sharp and Sony (SNE) are barely able to keep up with demand as millions of consumers around the world junk their bulky cathode-ray-tube sets for sleek and thin TVs that feature large, cinema-quality displays. And as the screens get bigger and bigger, so do the price tags and profits.
The new sets helped Panasonic parent Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s (MC) profits jump 39 percent in the October-December quarter, while flat-panel sales helped drive Sharp's earnings up 26 percent during the same period.
Sony Corp., which until recently lagged behind its TV rivals, posted a 17.5 percent improvement after its liquid-crystal displays sold briskly over the holidays. Now, it's forecasting a profit for the full fiscal year ending March 31, reversing a previous prediction for a loss.
The switch in TV technology is an opportunity that only comes once in several decades, said Fumio Ohtsubo, Matsushita's incoming president.
Matsushita is the world leader in plasma TVs, while Sony has surged from behind to become the world leader in the other major technology, LCD TVs, overtaking Sharp Corp., according to DisplaySearch, a unit of the market research firm NPD Group.
"We have been a big success because we chose early on to focus on and invest in plasma display panels," Masaaki Fujita, director of Matsushita's plasma display panel TV business, said. "People are really moved when they see the quality of the images in our TVs."
This isn't the first time the TV has lifted Japan's fortunes. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Matsushita and Sony rose to global prominence largely through booming sales of their reliable, inexpensive televisions.
Now once again, Japanese electronics companies are proving through flat panel TVs that they can deliver both quality and value — not unlike automakers Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) and Honda Motor Co. (HMC), said Yuichi Ishida, analyst with Mizuho Investors Securities.
"Japanese people are notorious for being picky about quality, and so Japanese electronics makers are getting tested in the toughest market in the world," Ishida said. "That's why they gain that competitive edge."
The sophisticated technology required for such TVs is one area the Japanese makers, with their longer history in the industry, can hope to beat newcomers, analysts say.
The Japanese companies also have formidable brand power as well as marketing clout in retail. Recent results underscore those strengths.
Well-to-do shoppers like Yoshiki Inoue, recently seen strolling through a sprawling store in downtown Tokyo, aren't looking for bargains but for quality, even status symbols, and they're willing to pay more for brand power.
"I buy what I like that fits my budget," said Inoue, looking at an $8,500 Panasonic 65-inch plasma TV. "I have to feel that the products are good."
Inoue, 58, who runs his own construction business, isn't dead set against non-Japanese brands such as Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea. It's just that he hasn't seen anything from them so far that he's liked, he said.
The results are showing up in the electronic makers' bottom and top lines.
In the fourth-quarter of last year, Matsushita's profits jumped to $424 million, largely on the back of booming flat-panel TV sales, as quarterly sales jumped 4 percent to $20.6 billion.
Growing sales in flat panel helped send Sharp's profits up $226 million. Sales for the quarter rose 12.5 percent to $6.3 billion.
Unlike Sharp and Matsushita, Sony was an exception among the Japanese in falling behind in flat-panel TVs, which proved disastrous for its books.
Its fortunes have improved dramatically after it started selling LCDs TVs developed and made under a joint venture with Samsung. Especially telling of Sony's brand power is that it is beating Samsung in global share of LCD TVs.
Sony reported a $1.4 billion profit for the quarter ended Dec. 31, up 17.5 percent from the same period a year ago, as its LCD TVs sold briskly during Christmas.
For all manufacturers, there's a risk in that prices will drop too quickly — something that's good for consumers, but difficult for manufacturers.
But profit margins still tend to be fatter for the newest TVs, and both Matsushita and Sharp made sure they were out with products ahead of the rivals before serious price drops set in.
Toshishige Hamano, Sharp's executive in charge of international operations, brushed off the threat from cheaper Asian rivals, saying he's confident that Sharp can offer the best quality for the price.
"Major players are also bringing down costs, and so they won't have much of a price advantage," Hamano said.
The excitement over flat-screen TVs is obvious at a downtown Tokyo branch of retail chain Yodobashi Camera Co.
Even on a weekday morning, customers are everywhere at the bustling store, carefully studying dozens of competing TV models in various sizes from Japan's top brands, which also include Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. (HIT).
Most of the screens are big — and they aren't cheap. A 32-inch LCD TV costs about $2,200.
Tomoo Yoneta, manager at the chain, can barely control his excitement.
"It's all about TVs now," he said, adding that he expects solid sales to continue for some time.