Here is part 2 of my 3-part interview with Cliff Levin, President of Inada USA massage chairs:
Transcript of Interview with Cliff Levin, President of Inada USA Massage Chairs (Part Two)
Dr. Alan Weidner: The Japanese, because of the cost of the Japanese manufacturing, we have seen other companies moving from Japan to China. Panasonic’s now moved all their manufacturing to China. I believe, I could be wrong on this, you may correct me on this, but I think Sanyo’s also moved to China. Of course, Osaki, Omega, Human Touch, are all Chinese-made chairs, and do you think there’s going to be a trend, where one day that Inada might start manufacturing some chairs in China, or they may already do, for other parts of the world, how does China fit in to Inada’s manufacturing picture, if at all?
Cliff Levin: So, some of the upholstery, and some of the kind of fit-and-finish stuff, that you see on Sogno today, actually it is kind of that piecework, some of that’s done in China today.
Cliff: That’s true of Yu•Me, and that’s true of all Inada products.
Cliff: It is simply, Japan is such an expensive place to manufacture, that it’s simply not economically feasible to do stuff like cut and sew, in Japan.
Alan: Right. Right.
Cliff: But then, the Sogno Dreamwave and the Yu•Me are ‘Made in Japan’ products, which means that the vast majority of the assembly, and the vast majority of the pieces and parts of the chair have to be Japanese products.
Cliff: You asked about a trend, I think the trend is now well-established. As far as I know, at this point, we are the only manufacturer, the only brand that will continue to make our chairs in Japan. We’re it, in the US, in terms of distribution.
Cliff: There are a couple of very, very small Japanese brands, but they really have less distribution network.
Cliff: Everything else is made in China, some stuff is made in Taiwan, and I think you’re going to see more stuff coming out of places like Vietnam, too …
Cliff: … in the very near future. But we’re committed to this ‘Made in Japan’ message, we’re committed to the quality that comes out of products that are made in Japan. So, what’s going to happen is, when Panasonic moves all its production to China, and as you’ve noted some other brands are already in China, you may see some competition in the price-point categories.
Cliff: Because we’re made in Japan, we’re really competing at the quality level, we’re really, what we want to share with everybody is, ‘If you want the best, talk to us, talk to you, about an Inada brand of chair’.
Alan: Yeah. Well, it is a bit of a selling feature for folks, when they come in, or call me on the phone about the chairs, a lot of them ask, ‘Is this chair made in China?’ or ‘Is this chair made in Japan?’ or they also ask if this chair’s made in the USA. I think there’s a lot of folks out there that would love to have an American-made chair, that was a viable option, but I don’t think there are any, but I can’t speak to that, you know, precisely. Now, tell me a little bit about this Yu•Me massage chair, this Yu•Me, I think we got it a year ago, May or June, I’m not sure, but very nice chair, small chair. I think people were expecting, when the Yu•Me came out, they were expecting something to trump the Sogno. But it is not, my experience has been that it has not been as popular as the Sogno. It’s not nearly as feature-rich as the Sogno, but it does have some cool features now that are, and with Inada it’s always something innovative. As a matter of fact, I think most of the stuff that we see on the common-place massage chair was pioneered, most of those things were pioneered by Inada through the decades. But the Yu•Me’s got the rocking and the Thera-Elliptical-Kneading in the calf, which is cool, but I’ve noticed that it’s not nearly as popular as the Sogno.
Cliff: Well, and you’ve noticed that the other chairs that you carry are not nearly as popular as the Sogno too, right?
Alan: Yep, not a one of them.
Cliff: Yeah. That problem is that Sogno casts a long, long shadow. It’s such a compelling product that you see a lot of the industry kind of giving chase.
Cliff: Sometimes in more elegant ways in one manufacturer than some other manufacturers. Sogno has absolutely set the standard.
Cliff: And when we were coming to market with Yu•Me, we certainly weren’t expressing to consumers or to our dealers, that this is going to trump Sogno.
Cliff: What it really is, is a very, very high quality, and again, not a branded option, to the Sogno chair. And because it’s got this Inada label on it, you can buy it with as much confidence as you would buy the Sogno.
Cliff: It’s still not an inexpensive chair. It is still very, very feature-rich. And I’ll tell you what, I would put the Yu•Me up against anything else from anyone else. The only chair that it’s kind of not going to shine against, is it’s brother, bigger brother …
Alan: Big brother.
Cliff: … the Sogno. And, you know, you said that Inada has brought all this innovation to market, and all the major changes in the market have come from Inada, and Yu•Me’s no exception. You talked about the Thera-Elliptical-Kneading for the calves, that’s one brand new feature, never available before on a massage chair. The second thing is no massage chair has ever had an automatic rocking feature.
Cliff: You mentioned that as well. And the third thing, which is a little more subtle, and if you haven’t tried this, you really ought to try this: turn down the lights …
Alan: [laughs] Yeah.
Cliff: … turn on the Yu•Me, and you’ve noticed on the remotes, and then on the sides of the foot panels, there are what we call, Color Kinetic LEDs. These are paced, and designed with a certain color palette, in such a way that the walls will sort of play in to the different colors, and that will add a visual relaxation to the physical massage experience.
Cliff: So, here’s the only chair to blend this visual experience with the physical experience, together, in one package. And if you haven’t tried it, it’s really cool, and mind will go down very, very quickly, as you sort of, are engulfed in the glow that Yu•Me throws up against the walls that you’re sitting near. Pretty cool stuff.
Alan: Well, in our showroom we don’t have the luxury of complete darkness in that room. But I’d like to try it. I know, as a chiropractor, there were certain chiropractic educators that espouse the chromotherapy idea, where they use different light-flashing to elicit different brain responses. So, I’m familiar with the idea, I’ve never used it. I have seen a couple of the Osaki chairs come out with a chromotherapy, or those LED lights now, and so, again, another thing that Inada pioneers. Now, speaking of imitations by other companies, this is one of the things that has been most remarkable to me about the Sogno. I have seen companies start showing up with these Sogno look-alikes. And I think Brookstone came out with one first, the uAstro, made by OSIM, who owns Brookstore, it’s again a Chinese-made chair, I believe. And then I think Omega’s come out with one, I know Omega’s come out with one, I know Osaki’s come out with a couple, Cozy has come out with one, and who knows how ever many other companies have come out with these imitations? But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, holy cow, Inada is truly a trend-setter, because this whole look, the whole design of the Sogno, which was so unique when it came out in ’08, and that’s what struck me immediately when I saw it. Now it’s common-place, in one variation or another, on these imitations. But I’ve also noticed that the quality, well I maybe can’t speak to the quality yet, because I’m not as familiar with them, they haven’t been out as long, but I would say the feature set, and the massage is not nearly as rich or discriminating a massage or quality of massage, as the Sogno. Do you have any input on that?
Cliff: Let me put it a way that maybe somebody shopping for a massage chair can understand very simply. It’s our belief, and this is, the chairs are designed from the ground up this way, both Sogno and Yu•Me are, and every Inada chair. And it’s my personal belief, that if a customer has the opportunity to really understand what an Inada chair is capable of doing, what kind of sensations it’s capable of creating, and you used a wonderful word, how discriminating the massage is, how nuanced it is, how accurate it is, once you understand all that, it’s not going to be possible for you to buy anything else. And sometimes it can be a real stretch for consumers, I know that you have been able to offer financing to some consumers, some of our other dealers offer financing. But we’ve had many folks who have struggled with stress or back pain, who have put off vacations in order to be able to afford a Sogno chair, because they have come to fully appreciate it’s capabilities through standard demonstration or use of the chair.
Cliff: In the first two minutes, there’s much less of a difference between massage chair models, than there is in the first hour of use, than there is in the first week of use, first month, and first year. And as time goes on, the discriminating consumer, and all consumers are discriminating consumers, will begin to understand the enormous gap between what Inada is capable of bringing to market, designing, and capable of bringing to market, versus everything else, and I’m not going to name names, versus everything else, that gap is enormous. And it’s not a gap of features, it’s a gap of feelings, it’s a gap of ultimate deliverables, it’s a gap of, you know, what is the deepest relaxation level you can achieve?
Cliff: What is the best back mobilization you can receive from a massage chair? And as you start to ask those bigger questions, the bigger the question, the better we smell, at Inada …
Cliff: … and that’s basically it.
Alan: Yeah. Well, I did have a customer come in, just a week ago, and they sat on a couple of imitations, and I asked them what their budget was, and I think they said 3 to 4000 dollars, and then they said, ‘What’s that chair over there?’ Of course, everybody always asks about the Sogno, and I said, ‘Well, you do not want to look at that chair, you don’t want to sit in it, [laughs] because it’s twice as much, or more than twice as much, as the ones that you’ve been sitting in’. Well, they were there for an hour and a half, and by the end of the hour and a half, they just in parting, they wanted to go sit in the Sogno, just for fun, just to see what it was like. Well, they ended up buying the Sogno, and I don’t know how they afforded it, I don’t know, you know, I can’t speak to their finances, but some way, some how they made it work, and they got a Sogno. And I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that, in comparison. Now, oh, go ahead.
Cliff: So, I guess the moral of this little segment of our chat is, if you don’t want to be looking at the kind of ticket that Sogno represents, well then by gum, don’t sit in it, because once you do, and once you understand it, it’s very, very tough to really move away from it and consider others.
Alan: Gosh, yeah. Well, and there is, of course, folks that don’t want the Sogno, they don’t like it, or for whatever reason, I mean, not one chair makes everybody happy, but yeah, the vast majority of the people really do enjoy that chair. You know, the Yu•Me, I noticed, and maybe you could speak to this, and this is more of the technology and the mechanics of the rollers, but the Inada has a very particular feel in the rollers, I noticed that Yu•Me has a different feel. It’s a, I can’t describe it, it almost feels like a more, more firm or something, I can’t describe it, but is there a difference in the rolling mechanism between the Yu•Me and the Sogno?
Cliff: Yes, the massage mechanism for the Yu•Me is completely redesigned, and very different than the one in the Sogno.
Cliff: It’s capable of very similar kneading motions, and the kneading, in any Inada mechanism, are derived from the digitized motions of a real massage master. So, you’re going to get very, very similar patterns built, but there is no question, that the Yu•Me mechanism, delivers, out of the box, a firmer massage experience on the back …
Cliff: … than the Sogno chair does. Sogno was deliberately built with a little bit more cushioning.
Cliff: It’s a little more gentle, it’s a little bit more subtle, but don’t let that fool you, because the Sogno can become quite firm as well.
Alan: Yeah, it really can. Yeah, we’ve noticed that.
Cliff: But Yu•Me comes out of the box a little firmer, and you can soften it up. Yu•Me can, Yu•Me’s delivered to customers homes with an extra set of pads that can make the massage a little bit softer.
Alan: I noticed that the Yu•Me does have a very, very simple remote. I mean, it is probably the most basic, simple remote I’ve ever seen. The manual settings underneath the handle, are still pretty typical, but I found that the main auto-functions or the main auto-programs is very, very simple on the Yu•Me.
Cliff: And that’s not an accident. We, as a company, as a brand, we really don’t believe that people should be doing battle with the interface …
Cliff: … between the product they bought and themselves. And you mentioned Yu•Me, but Sogno is also probably the second most simple …
Alan: Yeah, very simple. Yeah. Yeah.
Cliff: … remote that’s available on the market. Everything else, and I’m not sure why other manufacturers don’t understand this, but I guess as a competitor, I’m glad they don’t, everyone else, seems to add a lot of buttons, sometimes lights, and sometimes sound …
Cliff: … in a way that it really detracts, and distracts, from the massage experience.
Dr. Alan Weidner