OLED televisions may become a catalyst to spur the lackluster Japanese market, with Panasonic releasing its entry Thursday -- adding to the lineup offered by Toshiba, Sony and South Korea's LG Electronics.
A Bic Camera store in Tokyo's Yurakucho area has a dedicated section with a wide variety of organic light-emitting diode TVs. Large-screen OLED TVs from the four manufacturers are displayed there.
"I didn't think the colors would be so clear," said a 33-year-old male shopper who left work early. "It feels more powerful than I expected."
A 55-inch 4K ultrahigh definition model sells for around 540,000 yen ($4,872) for the Toshiba, Sony and Panasonic versions. One from LG is about 370,000 yen.
Right next to them are liquid-crystal display versions of 4K TVs -- priced between 100,000 yen and 200,000 yen. OLED versions cost at least double the LCD display equivalents for 55-inch products, according to Tokyo-based research company BCN.
Some shoppers were not sold on the new OLED TVs. A 60-something homemaker said she would take affordable prices over image quality.
But manufacturers and retailers consider OLED TVs to be the kind of centerpiece products not seen for a long time. Compared with the earlier shift from bulky cathode-ray tube TVs to flat-panel LCDs, the difference may not be so obvious. But the OLED is the first major milestone in technological evolution since the LCD.
The organic compounds in OLED TVs emit light themselves, so backlighting is not necessary -- unlike in LCDs. High contrast ratios and fast refresh rates make the technology well suited for watching movies and sports, and for playing games. And the thinness of OLED TVs, which could look like they are "pasted" on the wall, is another feature, said a Bic Camera clerk.
Bic Camera started offering discounts of up to 50,000 yen for certain models. Another retailer, K's Holdings, has set up OLED sections in all of its stores. Edion will expand dedicated sections.
More and more customers are using televisions to view online content. About 70% of Sony TV buyers watch online videos, and these consumers keep their TVs on 10 hours longer on average each month.
Sony President Kazuo Hirai says "the increased opportunities to watch videos have fueled the desire of some people to watch on large, high-quality screens."
In 2017, TV shipments in Japan are expected to increase 6% to 5.03 million units -- rising for the first time in three years -- according to the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association.
The last big surge in TV sales was driven in part by a green-appliance subsidy program introduced in 2009. Many households that purchased TVs back then are now looking to upgrade to new models.
That televisions have evolved greatly since then also will spur demand for new, larger TVs with better image quality. Shipments are expected to reach 9 million in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.
OLED TVs now cost about 10,000 yen per inch -- roughly the same price as large LCD TVs a decade ago, when they were new. The subsequent price drop of LCD TVs helped popularize them. It remains to be seen whether OLED TVs can catch the wave of widespread adoption. Meanwhile, some electronics retailers fear that LCD sales may slow further as people wait for OLED prices to come down.