Archive for September, 2009

Still a plus for Seven-Eleven

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

"Welcome to Japan," but you still have to pay the ¥210 handling charge

“Welcome to Japan,” but you still have to pay the ¥210 handling charge

Most residents of Japan didn’t notice it at the time, but if you were a foreign tourist here in the summer of 2007, Seven & I Holdings made it much easier to travel the country by allowing its Seven Bank ATMs to accept bank cards and credit cards from overseas.

Networks like VISA’s Plus and MasterCard’s Cirrus systems let travelers access bank ATMs all over the world, but  Japanese banks never joined these systems, and until Japan’s post offices signed up earlier this decade, there were very few ways for foreign tourists in Japan to get emergency cash, save for foreign exchange kiosks in airports, some machines run by credit-card companies and placed in or near department stores, and maybe at the front desks of the larger hotels. You could, of course, always go to a teller window at a bank, but many banks outside the larger cities weren’t equipped to handle such transactions as recently as the late ’90s. Anyone who has tried to buy a money order or cut a cashier’s check in foreign currency, even in Tokyo, knows what a pain in the neck it can be.

Continue reading about Seven-Eleven ATMs →

The Giants give you an excuse to go shopping

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Ito Yokado's Giants sale ends Saturday, so hurry!

Ito Yokado’s Giants sale ends Saturday, so hurry!

Whenever a professional baseball team clinches the pennant, the team’s affiliated retail concern throws a big yusho (victory) bargain sale in celebration. However, over the past decade, many of the department stores connected to specific teams have either gone out of business or been absorbed by other department stores.

The Yomiuri Giants may be the most popular team in Japanese baseball, but their one-time retail affiliate, Sogo, has shrunk to, like, one store in Yokohama. Who wants to go all the way to Yokohama to celebrate?

Well, being the most popular team in the country does have it advantages, and a dozen or more stores—not the just the department kind—are cashing in on the Giants’ pennant win on Wednesday with bargain sales of different shapes, sizes and lengths.

Nationwide, all Mitsukoshi and Isetan department stores (but not Shinjuku, oddly enough—Swallows fans?) are participating, as are Seven & I Holdings retailers—Ito Yokado and Seven Eleven. There are also one-offs like Printemps and Marronnier Gate in Ginza, and even department stores in the Kansai region like Kintetsu. Didn’t they used to own the Buffaloes?

Talk about fair weather fans.

Annals of cheap: QB House

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

QB

Be kind and shampoo before you go

Some people love to get their hair cut and set. They love the scent of shampoo and the touch of the beautician’s hands on their scalps, or the subtle snip-snip of the barber’s shears and the reassuring dampness of a hot towel; the whole sensuous, tactile experience augmented with light conversation and unforced cameraderie.

Then again, some people absolutely hate all that, and for those people there’s QB House, whose business model is as simple as styrofoam: 10 minutes in the chair for ¥1,000. No shampoo, no shave, no small talk. Just a haircut. Does that look OK? Get outta here.

Presently QB (“Quick Beauty”) Net Co., Ltd. runs 401 outlets throughout Japan, as well as shops in Hong Kong and Singapore. The first one opened near Kanda Station in Tokyo in 1996 and the QB approach caught on very fast.

QB keeps costs down mainly by renting very small spaces and doing high-volume business. Profit margins are about 7.4%, which means each shop should ideally serve about 85 customers a day. The cut station is self-contained, with a chair and a tall vanity-like facility that features a sterilizer, an “air washer” (extending vacuum device to remove cut hair strands from the customer’s person), disinfectant and drawers of disposable combs and paper towels made of recycled material. A comb is used only once and then offered to the customer afterward. By having everything in such close proximity, QB not only makes effective use of space but allows each haircutter to clean up quickly so as to save time.

It’s easy for the customer, too. Instead of a barber pole, each outlet features a traffic light set up in the window. A green light means no waiting; yellow means a wait of 5 to 10 minutes; and red says a wait of 15 minutes or more. The customer walks in and inserts a thousand-yen bill in the vending machine (no change is given) in exchange for a ticket, and sits down. When his turn comes up he hands the ticket to the cutter and tells him/her what he wants. Some outlets accept Suica and Edy cards.

Continue reading about QB House →

Use it or lose it: Is expired food OK to sell?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Sankei Super's "mottainai" corner of expired foods references 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai

Sankei Super’s “mottainai” corner of expired foods references 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai

The great gyoza scare of a year-and-a-half ago supposedly made the Japanese public more concerned about food safety, but in the meantime a much more momentous scare happened: the worldwide recession. Consequently, frozen gyoza (pot stickers) from China — the main culprit in the food scare — is back on shelves and selling better than ever for no other reason than that it’s cheap.

Japanese consumers have always been noted for their discerning tastes in food, and the food distribution structure exploits this belief by limiting the kinds of foods that are available, in particular produce. Up until recently, fruits and vegetables that didn’t adhere to standards of size and shape were rejected by wholesalers because it was believed that people wouldn’t buy them, though the real reason is that enforced uniformity allows them to keep prices higher. But smaller and discount food stores have been openly selling this “irregular” produce and people buy it because it’s less expensive and tastes just as good as the nicely shaped stuff. So now many major supermarkets are also selling this non-standard produce, too.

The next frontier for the anti-food waste crusade is processed food that has passed its use-by date. In Japan, there are two kids of expiration notices printed on packaging — shomi kikan and shohi kikan, which respectively correspond to the English terms, “best-by date” and “use-by date.” Shomi kikan literally means the product “tastes best” before the printed date while shohi kikan means it must be “consumed” by the printed date.

Continue reading about expired food →

Silver Week to make up for less than lustrous summer?

Friday, September 18th, 2009

So much time, so few things to spend it on

So much time, so few things to spend it on

On your mark, get set, spend money!

Silver Week officially starts whenever you get off work today, and according to various media reports, the government estimates that the average Japanese household will spend ¥37,000 during the special five-day holiday period, though I’m not sure if this amount is above what they would spend during a normal five-day period incorporating a weekend or includes what they would normally spend.

It’s no secret that the holiday was concocted with stimulus in mind, which means it had to be planned a fairly long time ago. But the timing seems opportune since consumption this past summer was disappointing due to the cooler weather (less beer and air conditioner sales). There was a slight uptick in travel toward the end of August but not as much as usual, and since travel costs are cheaper in Sept. anyway, it should make up at least partly for that shortfall.

Continue reading about Silver Week →

Dealing with the disposable

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Aun recently rented the building across the street to cover expansion

Awn recently rented the building across the street to cover expansion

Recycling unwanted household effects is a big business and will likely become even bigger in the future. In most cases you have to pay to have your stuff hauled away, even by those little trucks that drive slowly around residential neighborhoods calling for people to give them their used computers, stereos, what-have-you. These businesses say they’ll take your things for free, but once you bring the item all the way to their truck they usually have some kind of handling fee they forgot about.

Outside looking in

There are places that will take your still usable refuse for free; though, of course, they’ll be more selective about it. One is Awn (pronounced “ah-oon”; it stands for Asian Workers Network), which is located in Higashi Nippori in eastern Tokyo. Awn started eight years ago as a “recycle shop” whose purpose had less to do with recycling or making money than with jobs.

The business is staffed by people, mostly older men, who are or used to be homeless. When Awn started it had five workers and now it has about 20. These men earn all their money through their work for the shop, which accepts donations of a wide range of items. Over the years Awn has expanded and moved several times. Many of the men who work there have earned enough money to get off the street, which is, in the end, the real aim of the enterprise.

In terms of donations, Awn is mainly interested in men’s clothing because it can also give clothing away to homeless men. Since their space is limited there are some items of clothing they don’t accept, like skirts and kimono. They do accept women’s apparel but only that which is considered “practical,” meaning sellable. They accept accessories like bags, hats, and even shoes, but no men’s suits. Also, no skiwear or white dress shirts.

Continue reading about recycle shop Awn →

Who pays for parking?

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Like someone who has quit smoking, I find that ever since I gave up my car I have problems with other people who are still hooked on theirs. A certain intolerance sets in that I recognize to be irrational at times, but this frame of mind does give rise to realizations that I might not have reached otherwise.

Park and save?

Park and save?

My current obsession is parking, specifically validated parking for shoppers, which is such a fixture of consumer life that most people, whether they drive or not, take it for granted. But who actually pays for parking?

Parking lots are not cost-free, especially in big cities where land is a premium. Retailers have to pay rent on the land, or, if they own it, property taxes. They have to pay the concession that operates the parking lot. They have to pay for security and upkeep. All those expenses go into the prices of the goods they sell, which means their patrons pay for these expenses. But it’s only a benefit for those who drive to the store and who can park for free if they buy the store’s wares. People who walk or ride a bicycle or take public transportation don’t get anything, but they’re paying for the parking lot just the same. In effect, non-drivers are subsidizing drivers’ shopping activities.

This is the same basic complaint that non-homeowners have in countries where mortgage interest is tax deductible. People who buy houses or condos can deduct the interest of their housing loans on their income tax returns. Supposedly, this practice spurs housing sales, which are said to benefit the economy as a whole, but in some countries — France, for instance — it is considered unfair to non-homeowners, since in essence it amounts to welfare for homeowners. Non-homeowners subsidize their housing purchases.

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