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Business Insight

Goods by Grandmas

Today we present the second segment in our series on Japan's aging society. We'll visit a small business that's driven by the special skills and life experiences that "grandmas" have to offer.

There is a company run out of a house in Saitama city, north of Tokyo. It's called "Baba Lab," or "Grandma's laboratory." Some of the employees are in their 60s or older. The company specializes in goods for older people to take care of their grandchildren. They were developed with the help of elderly people themselves.

One of the products is a bag with an unusual attachment. A tether is connected to the handle for a young child to hold on to. It helps grandparents and grandchildren spend time together more comfortably.

Another popular item is a cushion that makes it easy for elderly people to support an infant's head and neck. Shizuka Kuwabara is the company's president. She saw great potential in a business that would utilize the skills of elderly women in her neighborhood.

She says she wants to keep developing, making and selling new products, and that it would be great if that gave older people the chance to make money.

Kuwabara has made an effort to match each employee's skills to the work they do. Workers get paid about $1.50 for each sewing task. Embroidery pays about $1.20. Sewing buttons earns about 12 cents.

The company is starting to gain recognition. Last year, government officials recognized it as one of 300 small to mid-sized companies making a particularly impressive effort.

Yet the company has been struggling to increase its sales. Kuwabara's initial plan was to pay each employee about $400 a month. But now, the typical monthly paycheck is just $80. Kuwabara says they need to promote their brand better and hit certain sales targets before they can raise pay.

Most of the sales have been over the Internet. Kuwabara is now looking to expand to brick-and-mortar shops. To boost sales and familiarize consumers with her unique products, she began bundling them together.

Kuwabara consulted with experts to design a new baby bottle. She visited a research laboratory in Tokyo. She's hoping to find a way to make a bottle that elderly people would find easy to use. After much trial and error, the team decided on a hexagonal shape. It allows people with weaker grips to hold the bottle more securely. They also increased the size of the writing to make liquid measurements easier to read. Kuwabara is hard at work on more strategies for enhancing the brand's image.

Kuwabara says she wants to keep working until she's 100 years old-- and until she becomes a grandma herself. She says the existence of a workplace like this gives her hope for her future.

Kuwabara says she's happy that her company can help elderly workers make ends meet. But she knows it's even more important to give them new energy for life by allowing them to use their special skills and experiences.

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