Archive for the ‘Annals of cheap’ Category

Annals of Cheap: Eco Rent-a-car

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

All you need to know: Sign outside Eco Rent-a-car office in Ota advertising prices

Since selling our car some years ago we’ve made do with public transportation, bicycles and our own four feet to get around, even after we moved out of the city. It hasn’t been as much of a hassle as you might think, but, then again, we’re easy about such things. Still, once in a while you need a car.

Several weeks ago we had to go to Ota in Gunma Prefecture to do some research. Ota is the home of the manufacturer Fuji Juko, whose most famous product is Subaru automobiles. Our mission in Ota would take us to two locations, and since we don’t have a car we had to play out our itinerary beforehand to make sure we would be able to get around. Getting to Ota from where we live wasn’t a problem at all. From Kita Senju in Tokyo, which is convenient from where we live, we caught the Tobu express train to Ota and got there in about an hour.

Our first destination in the city itself was on another local Tobu train line that connected to Ota Station, but there is only one train an hour. That station is 5 km from Ota Station, so walking was not a desirable option. The bus system also seemed dodgy, which is often the case in towns where large car makers are the main source of employment. Sometimes you can rent bicycles near a station, and they usually cost between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 for two hours or so, but usually it’s a place that receives a lot of tourists, which doesn’t describe Ota at all.

We considered taking a taxi and estimated that the first leg of our trip would cost at least ¥3,000. When we were finished with our research at that location, we would have to call another taxi to take us to our second destination. Of course, when you order a taxi in Japan by phone they tack on an extra fare segment. We figured it might cost ¥5,000 to get to the next place, so that would already be ¥8,000 even before we found a way to get back to Ota Station for the return trip home.

So we decided to rent a choinori (short drive) car and almost accidently came across Eco Rent-a-car, which we’d never heard of but happened to have an office right at Ota Station. Much more interesting than the location, however, was the price: ¥980 for three hours. Was that right? There had to be some sort of catch, even if it was for the smallest model, a mini-car (k-car, in Japanese). You even got a 5 percent discount if you reserved online, so we did. Naturally, all the cars Eco provides, including an electric model, are made by Subaru.

CONTINUE READING about Eco Rent-a-car →

Annals of cheap: Don Don Down on Wednesday

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

We all know Japanese people prefer new stuff — new homes, new rice, new prime ministers every 12 months — which may explain why the used clothing business isn’t as big here as it is in other countries. According to the Asahi Shimbun, 50 percent of discarded used clothing in America is recycled, either commercially or as contributions, and the portion in South Korea is 80 percent. In Japan, it’s only 20 percent, meaning that the rest is simply trashed. But that may change with the advent of a new model for used clothing stores.

Don Don's website

Don Don’s website

Don Don Up Co. Ltd., headquarted in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, opened its first used clothing store, called Don Don Down on Wednesday, in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, eight years ago. The company now commands a chain of 60 outlets nationwide, with more to come. Don Don, an onomatopoeic word expressing a process of steady progression, came up with an ingenious pricing system that not only saves the company overhead and personnel costs, but draws customers on a weekly basis by turning shopping into a “game,” as its promotional literature puts it.

All the merchandise is affixed with price tags, but the tags don’t display yen amounts. Instead they have pictures of fruits and vegetables, 10 in all. The pictures represent prices, which range from a high of ¥5,250 (i.e., ¥5,000 for the item plus 5 percent consumption tax) to a low of ¥105. These prices are listed on charts alongside their corresponding symbols and posted throughout the store. The price tag on a particular item never changes as long as it remains in the store.

The charts are changed weekly. For instance, this week, perhaps, all the strawberry items cost ¥5,250, but next week, all the remaining strawberry items will be priced at ¥4,200. Each week, the line of a particular fruit or vegetable goes down one pricing rank until it reaches ¥105. The following week all the items previously priced at ¥105 are removed from stock and exported to Southeast Asia in bulk, which means no item stays in the store for more than ten weeks. The weekly price changes take effect on Wednesdays, thus explaining the name of the store. Not surprisingly, that’s the day they do their biggest business.

This system adds a touch of drama to the shopping experience. If a customer likes a particular item she can buy it right away or take a chance and wait til the following week when it’s cheaper, but then she risks the possibility that someone else will buy it. The president of the company told Asahi, “I want our customers to enjoy shopping as if playing a game. I wanted to change the image of the used clothing store, which tends to be dark.”

At first, the scheme was to try to replace the inventory as often as possible to keep people coming, but that meant changing price tags on a continuing basis to weed out unpopular items. It wasn’t until management hit on the fixed price tag system that they figured a way to not only streamline operations but make the process interesting for consumers.

As for procuring merchandise, Don Don’s method is similar to Book Off’s, Japan’s pioneer in used merchandise, which boasts 900 outlets. It bases the price it pays for a book on its condition and then places a seal on each volume that indicates how long is has been in the store. Every book that remains on the shelf for three months automatically gets reduced to ¥105.

When those don’t sell, they’re pulped. With the exception of some brand items, Don Don buys clothing from anyone by the kilogram: ¥500 for “very popular” items, ¥50 for “popular” items, and ¥10 for “useful” items. And they pay 50 percent more on Mondays and Thursdays. More significantly, they refuse very little that is wearable, since they can always sell it, again by the kilogram, to wholesalers in Southeast Asia. Just like produce.

Annals of cheap: bananas

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Yes, we have mo’ bananas

Bananas have been unusually inexpensive this fall. Normally the retail price remains in the ¥200-¥230 per kg range (1 banana is about 150 grams) year-round, and the average price for all of 2011, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was ¥218. However, the ministry recently conducted a survey of 42 retail outlets in Tokyo and found that from January to September of this year, the price was slightly less than ¥210, and at the end of September it suddenly dropped to ¥197. Then, in early October, it fell further to ¥192 and has stayed there ever since. It’s the lowest price for bananas since 1979, and importers and wholesalers don’t like it at all. According to Tokyo Shimbun, smaller importers are hoping that the larger importers will limit their supply since it appears the price drop is due to a continual flood of bananas into the market.

Why the sudden price collapse? Apparently, it has to do with political situations on two fronts. China is, for all intents and purposes, currently carrying out an embargo of Philippine bananas due to a diplomatic flareup between the two countries over control of an island in the South China Sea. Though there are no formal sanctions involved, China recently reinforced inspections for diseases and pests that have resulted in banana shipments from the Philippines being held for extended periods of time in Chinese ports. Consequently, they are in danger of spoiling, so a lot of the bananas originally meant for the Chinese market have been coming to Japan.

China is the second biggest producer of bananas in the world (after India, which consumes 80 percent of its product), but several years ago the country signed a free-trade agreement with the Philippines, and bananas are one of the latter’s few big export crops. Another major banana market for the Philippines is Iran, which is currently under the shadow of a genuine U.S.-led embargo owing to Iran’s nuclear development program, so some of the bananas that the Philippines were planning to ship to Iran are now also going to Japan.

Continue reading about bananas →

Annals of cheap: 5manika.com

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Redecorate your one-room apartment in retro (read: cramped) style!

“Deflation” continues to be the word on everyone’s lips when they talk about Japan’s economic problems, but so far one area has resisted the price-reduction trend: apartment rents. That may be finally changing. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, it is now possible to find a one-room apartment with bath and toilet in the 23 wards of Tokyo for less than ¥50,000 a month. Generally speaking, since the mid-’80s the only units in the center of the city that were less than ¥50,000 were those in old wooden apartment buildings with communal toilets and no bath, meaning you had to patronize the local sento (public bath). Tokyo Shimbun credits the rise of the Internet with the reduction in rent, since more real estate companies are publicizing properties on the net and, as a result, apartment-seekers have more of an opportunity to compare prices. Before the Internet, you had to basically visit every real estate office in the area where you wanted to live, which is a time-consuming endeavor.

One young entrepreneur, Kenji Yoshioka, is already profiting from the trend. A former employee for an investment fund who handled real estate, the 33-year-old set up a company called A Power Home last April and launched a website called Yachin Go-man-en Ika that advertises only apartments which are ¥50,000 a month or less. He was responding to the reality that younger full-time workers were less well off than their predecessors, who had bigger benefit packages, more assured salaries and, most importantly, the use of company housing. Young people wanted cheap apartments near their workplaces but didn’t want to give up basic amenities, like a private toilet and bath. Yoshioka decided to collect this information in one easy-to-navigate website. It was an immediate hit and in October he even set up his own real estate company.

In most cases, the cheap apartments that Yoshioka publicizes are “sleeping,” meaning that they’ve been vacant for some time. Normally when people go to realtors and specifically ask for apartments that are less than ¥50,000, the agents turn them away because the commission isn’t really worth the time and effort. Landlords, however, are desperate to rent such places and many have remodeled them to make them more attractive while keeping prices affordable, adding things like sound-proofing and even elevators. Many attempt to attract women tenants (who make up more than 50 percent of single apartment-seekers looking for cheaper units) by allowing pets. Tokyo Shimbun mentions a one-room apartment with a loft, kitchen, unit bath-with-toilet, and even a window only ten minutes walk from Itabashi Station that costs ¥48,000 a month. There are even some properties listed for as low as ¥30,000 that have baths and toilets.

According to the real estate research company Home’s, the average rent for a one-room apartment in Tokyo has decreased by 5.3 percent in the last year alone. In addition, security deposits on such units have decreased by 8 percent and gift money by 11 percent. Since the vacancy rate for apartments in general in Tokyo is more than 10 percent (undoubtedly higher for cheap one-rooms) it’s not likely that rents will go up in the near future.

Annals of cheap: Skymark Airlines

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Last spring, budget carrier Skymark Airlines announced new service from Narita airport to Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kyushu starting this fall, and as a special promotional incentive would offer one-way fares at only ¥980 for the first three months on each new route. The deal is limited to only 20 seats on each flight. These seats can only be booked through Skymark’s website and have to be reserved at least 28 days in advance. Service to Asahikawa (one round trip a day) and Shin Chitose (Sapporo, two round trips) in Hokkaido commenced Oct. 30. Flights to Naha in Okinawa will begin Dec. 8 (two round trips), and supposedly the Fukuoka route opens on Feb. 1 of next year, though it hasn’t been announced on the website yet. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the ¥980 seats tend to be snatched up minutes after they’re made available.

Skymark Airlines website

Skymark, which opened for business in 1996, has established these routes to compete with ANA’s new special low-cost carrier Peach Airlines, which has begun service, but for the moment only flies out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The regular one-way fares for the new routes on Skymark are ¥12,800 for Shin Chitose, ¥13,800 for Asahikawa and Fukuoka and ¥16,800 for Naha, though there is also another limited deal for one-way flights as low as ¥3,800 for bookings made at least 21 days in advance. Regular one-way flights to all these destinations on JAL or ANA from Narita start at about ¥30,000. Basically, Skymark is be the first budget carrier to open a hub at Narita.

A Mainichi reporter took a flight to Shin Chitose the first day the ¥980 seats were available. He had been made aware that the flight offered “no service,” though it’s the same no matter which fare you pay. Consequently, he spent ¥120 for a bottle of tea in the airport and then discovered that Skymark only charged ¥100 for the same amount of tea on board. Having been conditioned to expect higher charges he was surprised (though not as surprised as we were that security allowed him to carry a liquid onto the plane). He also said the seats were not as cramped as he thought they’d be, comparing them to “non-reserved seats on the Shinkansen” in terms of roominess. He met a 31-year-old man on the flight who was going home to Sapporo “for the first time in 3 years” and felt it strange that the train from Shin Chitose Airport to the city proper was more (¥1,040) than the air fare from Tokyo.

The one demerit about the ¥980 flight is that Skymark has no arrangement with other airlines at Narita for backup flights to Hokkaido. That means if a Skymark flight is cancelled for any reason, the passenger either has to wait until the next available Skymark flight with empty seats, which might not be until the next day, or cancel the Skymark flight and buy a new ticket on another airline. The problem here is that most airlines that fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido — or anywhere in Japan — do so out of Haneda, including an increasing number of international carriers.

Annals of cheap: Kenko.com

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Water, water everywhere

Remember back in March, right after the earthquake, when people all over the Kanto area were cleaning the stores out of batteries and mineral water? It seems like a long time ago, especially to Kenko.com, an Internet sales company that specializes in “everyday goods.” Like a lot of retailers, Kenko.com made a lot of money in a short time and expected to keep making it, but people eventually calmed down. In the meantime, the company bought all the bottled water it could get its hands on and as a result it’s been left with a huge overrun of inventory. By June 11, its stock of bottled water was 37 percent larger than it was exactly a year earlier.

The loss in profits for the company as a result of this over-supply is estimated to be anywhere from ¥180 to ¥220 million for fiscal 2011, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, and the stockholders are understandably anxious, so that means they’ve got to get rid of this water.

Consumers who are still edgy about radiation and cesium in their food and drink should note that the product Kenko.com is most determined to unload is Crystal Geyser, which is bottled in California. Right now you can get a case of 48 500-ml bottles for ¥1,290, which works out to about ¥27 per bottle. In fact, the whole Crystal Geyser line is cheap, maybe even cheaper than tap water. But there are other foreign water brands available: Contrex is ¥1,555 for a case of 24 500-ml bottles; 12 1.5-liter bottles of Volvic goes for ¥1,675. Even better is that, for the time being at least, there are no delivery fees for any bottled water products.

Annals of cheap: Fukushima peaches

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Eat a peach

On Thursday, the government lifted the ban on beef shipments for farmers and ranchers in the Tohoku region. That means cattle can be shipped, but the meat they produce will still have to be inspected for radioactive materials. Ranchers in Fukushima, however, want more. They want the government to buy up the beef that went to market before the ban but was not sold.

Farmers in Fukushima, where the stricken nuclear reactor is located, may attempt similar countermeasures for other produce, which is not selling because the public is afraid it might be contaminated. Of course, the very fact that Fukushima fruits and vegetables are in stores proves that those fruits and vegetables have passed inspection and are thus deemed safe according to government standards, but there’s always fuhyo higai (hearsay damage), which can be as deadly to commerce as any trace of cesium. If sales of certain produce are banned, then the farmers can ask for compensation from the government or Tokyo Electric Power Co., but if consumers just refuse to buy the produce because they’re afraid to eat it, there’s no recourse except to throw the produce away.

As cynical as it may sound, there is a silver lining to this situation, and that’s lower prices. In particular, the prices of peaches from Fukushima are lower than they’ve ever been, and if you’ve ever tasted a peach from the prefecture, you’ll understand what good news that is.

Continue reading about Fukushima peaches →

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