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Fewer Babies Means Better Business for Diaper Maker

Japan has been undergoing a baby bust for decades. In the early 1970s, there were years where more than 2 million babies were born in Japan, but since then, those numbers have declined steadily. By the 1990s, there were about 1.2 million babies born each year in Japan, while in 2022, births fell below 800,000 for the first time.

Source: The Statistics Bureau of Japan

One might expect that a decrease in the number of babies would be a major problem for a company like Unicharm, which dominates the Japanese market for disposable diapers. But by taking advantage of other demographic trends that have opened new markets for the company, Unicharm has seen its overall business grow, even as its core market shrinks.

Unicharm was founded in 1961 as an insulation and building materials supplier and later began manufacturing feminine sanitary pads. In the following decades, Unicharm relied on its expertise in processing non-woven fabrics and absorbent materials made from petroleum-based polymers to expand into other markets beyond feminine care, especially diapers.

Unicharm grew to dominate the market for baby diapers in Japan, with an estimated 41% retail market share in 2023. But the product segment has become a challenging, low-margin business, partly because consumers have not been swayed to pay a premium for baby diapers with special features, and the decreasing number of babies being born has meant that Unicharm is fighting for its portion of a shrinking pie. Meanwhile in neighboring China, once a key market for the company’s baby diapers, stiff competition from local manufacturers has driven down retail prices.

While Unicharm says it will continue to make baby diapers, because of the positive and happy associations consumers attach to baby products, the company has increasingly focused on market segments that offer higher margins (if not the same positive feelings) such as adult incontinence products.

Japan now has the highest proportion of elderly citizens of any country in the world. About 29% of Japanese are over age 65, while more than 10% are 80 or older. As the population has gotten older, Unicharm’s adult products have become a larger part of its business. Adult diapers constitute about 33% of the company’s net sales in Japan today, up from an estimated 25% in 2018. Overall, the company derived one-third of its sales and 40% of its profits from Japan last year.

Adult incontinence products are a high-margin business because consumers are willing to pay a premium for products with special features, such as improved fit to prevent leakage. Furthermore, the company’s marketing campaigns have been successful at creating demand for its light and mini-incontinence pads by associating them with an active lifestyle.

The sort of quality companies that we look to invest in have, among other characteristics, strong management teams who can respond to changing market and industry dynamics. Unicharm’s ability to leverage its core competency in absorbent materials in different markets is an example of how managing change can help a business thrive over time. And Unicharm might even find a way to help address Japan’s aging demographics—it’s recently introduced a new feminine hygiene product that monitors ovulation to help women plan their pregnancies.

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