Archive for the ‘Annals of cheap’ Category

Annals of cheap: Tsume-hodai

Friday, March 11th, 2011

The average household is seeing tighter food budgets thanks to worldwide rise in the prices of basic commodities. And while these price rises will curb deflation, they won’t have much of an effect on the downward pressure that deflation has put on wages. So while food prices will go up, your paycheck will remain the same.

Get stuffed

Still, supermarkets and other food retailers will likely try to keep their prices as low as possible for competitive purposes. And since everyone is doing that, marketing chiefs have to come up with ways to get you into their stores in the first place. Traditionally, supermarkets put on shows: They buy a huge, expensive tuna and have some knife expert come in and slice it up in a grand, flamboyant way. The housewives love it, and while they’re there they buy other stuff. With penny-pinching in vogue like never before, loss-leader type events are more attractive. Loss leaders are products or product lines that are sold below cost mainly for promotional purposes. The style of promotion that’s become most prominent in recent years at food stores is tsume-hodai.

Tsumeru means “to stuff,” and hodai means “as much as you want.” In tsume-hodai sales, the retailer offers selected wares, usually produce, in bulk. Customers stuff bags provided by the retailer with as much of a given product as they can fit into them and then pay a set low price for each filled bag. Some years ago when the idea was first launched, it was usually only low-priced vegetables that were offered, like potatoes or onions. Eventually, vegetables were joined by fruit, then fish, and even sometimes meat. Last weekend we saw a tsume-hodai table set up on the street outside a discount supermarket offering pastries and other baked goods. Given the enthusiasm with which the housewives were stuffing the pastries into their plastic bags we assumed by the time they got home they would be filled with sweet, doughy mush.

Some supermarkets have actually become famous for their regular tsume-hodai fairs, which typically attract evening news crews who like nothing better than the spectacle of middle-aged women pushing and shoving and cramming. The fad’s apex, however, is represented by outlets of the convenience store chain Lawson that feature Kobe Hotto Deli, a buffet of prepared food. Instead of throwing unsold food away, KHD offers its own brand of tsume hodai: You take a tray of cooked rice and top it with as many dishes as possible for the uniform price of ¥390, which is usually what a dish would cost individually. The only condition is that the lid has to fit snugly over it. No leaning towers of fried prawns.

Annals of cheap: Only Free Paper

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Free magazines and newspapers, which in Japan are lumped under the general English term “free paper,” are the cheapest form of entertainment you can find in Japan. And while the digitalization of everything under the sun has caused huge problems for the publishing industry and related fields, free papers appear to be thriving. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Free Newspapers Association (JAFNA), in 2009 at least 337 million copies of free papers were printed that year by profit-making organizations, which means the survey didn’t take into consideration the thousands of free publications printed by non-profit concerns such as universities. About 61 percent of the publications included in the survey were newspapers and 38 percent were magazines. In terms or frequency, 43 percent were monthlies and 19 percent weeklies. Biweeklies and “seasonals” accounted for 11 percent each.

No cover charge

JAFNA doesn’t give figures on content, which is what most people care about, but it did study the “purpose” of the free publications and found that 64 percent were distributed as “customer countermeasures,” which means premiums for people who bought other things from a company, including itmes such newspaper inserts or special free editions from publishers who otherwise charge for their product. Another 39 percent were created to “increase revenues” (zoshu taisaku) of companies’ main businesses, meaning presumably as promotional tools.

Thirty percent were strictly delivery devices for advertising. Sixty-six percent of free papers were funded by resources other than advertising, such as charging other advertisers to insert flyers in their publications or simply through direct sponsorship by parent companies. Of those that sold advertising, about 40 percent reported yearly revenues of less than ¥30 million each and 26 percent revenues of more than ¥100 million each. However, probably the most significant figures were those for distribution methods, since the whole idea of free papers is to get them in the hands of as many people as possible. About 42 percent were made available in places of business (restaurants, book stores, etc.), while 37 percent were distributed as either direct mail or other forms of delivery; 24 percent were placed in “public areas”; and a full 16 percent were put in railway stations. About three-fourths have web tie-ins.

Continue reading about free papers in Japan →

Annals of Cheap: Pan no mimi

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The seduction of mimi: Heels or crusts?

The seduction of mimi: Heels or crusts?

Until about 30 years ago in Japan, foreign food was luxury food, even the humble sandwich. If you bought a sandwich in a restaurant, invariably it would arrive with the crusts cut off. It was more of an aesthetic affectation than a culinary decision, but it shaped the way Japanese people approached shoku pan (white bread). When bread became a staple in school lunches after the war, certain students, presumably the more well-to-do, would leave the crusts. Even today, if you buy a packaged sandwich in a convenience store, more likely than not it won’t have crusts. And if you buy sliced bread in a supermarket or even in a bakery, the ends, or “heels,” are not included, because it’s assumed people don’t want them.

Crusts and heels are categorized as pan no mimi (literally “bread ears”). Some bakeries just throw them in the garbage, but many sell them or even give them away. Homeless people frequent bakeries or bread factories to either ask for the discarded crusts or scrounge through trash bins for them. A lot of people use crusts to feed their pets or the birds that congregate in their gardens. As the recession grinds on and more and more middle-class folks are forced to cut corners, crusts have become more popular. Bakeries tend to have varied reactions to requests for discards, though.

Continue reading about pan no mimi →

Annals of cheap: High yen supermarket discounts

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Making your yen go further

Making your yen go further

Deflation is a drag on the economy since it keeps wages low and depresses demand, but most consumers like it for reasons that aren’t difficult to comprehend. The recent spike in the value of the yen should also translate as savings at the cash register, certainly in terms of imported goods, but the lag time is difficult to gauge and, in any case, it seems a lot of importers and wholesalers just refuse to pass the savings on to the public. As reported in this space earlier, imported cheese should be cheaper, but it hasn’t really changed at all for years, supposedly because it’s considered something of a “luxury,” which means . . . what? Cheese importers have some sort of right to gouge Japanese cheese lovers?

In any case, starting Aug. 16, several nationwide supermarket chains are marking down select items on their shelves because of the high yen. Ito-Yokado, with 161 stores throughout Japan, is discounting at least 20 items a day from 10 percent to 50 percent. Many of the items are packaged goods (Crystal Geyser water, ¥78 for 500 ml) but some are agricultural products (South African grapefruit, ¥88), which is good news considering how expensive fresh produce has been this summer. The Jusco chain (300 stores), which belongs to Aeon, will offer more than 50 items at discount, including salmon from Chile (¥178 for 100 grams) and American broccoli (100 grams for ¥88), with different items being added or taken from the list on a day-to-day basis. Ito-Yokado’s program ends Aug. 22, and Jusco says that its discount plan will continue “until at least Aug. 22.” As for other big chains, Daiei says it it considering doing the same, and Seiyu has no plan to get on the bandwagon.

Annals of Cheap: Kappa Sushi

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Screen shot 2010-07-07 at 5.08.48 PM

As low as they go

Sushi is Japan’s original fast food, at least in the literal sense. However, most sushi bars are too small and expensive to qualify for the more common meaning of the term “fast food.” Kaiten (revolving) sushi, on the other hand, fits the term to a T. The conveyor belt system made sushi more affordable to the hoi polloi back in the ’70s by stressing volume over every other consideration.

Kappa Sushi is the cheapest of the chain kaiten sushi restaurants. They regularly charge only ¥105 for a standard two-piece dish, with some items priced slightly higher. However, until July 16, the price at all 363 stores for everything on the menu is only ¥90 during weekdays, all day. And don’t forget, you can get all the tea and gari (ginger) you want for free. They’re promoting the deal with a pretty clever TV ad campaign.

Annals of cheap: UR apartments to die for

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

Not to keep dwelling on the morbid, but one of the inevitable consequences of a rapidly aging society is that people dying alone in their homes is becoming more of a conspicuous phenomenon. There’s a word for it in Japanese — kodokushi — and it carries a particularly depressing idea, since it’s usually used when someone dies and no one discovers the body right away.

As Japan became a more atomized society following the economic growth period of the ’60s and ’70s, more and more old people have been living in urban apartments by themselves, cut off from their communities and even from relatives. Isolated neighborhood groups often form patrols that keep an eye on elderly people living alone, checking up on them regularly to make sure they’re all right. One firm that works with UR, the nation’s public housing corporation, helps older tenants who find it difficult to move about. For ¥500 a month they take out their garbage for them, a service that doubles as a kind of patrol for obvious reasons.

UR, which reported 613 cases of kodokushi in its 750,000 nationwide units in 2008, has a stake in the issue because many of the people who moved into their residences decades ago are still living there, which means the number of kodukushi cases will only increase. The problem for UR is that Japanese people are very averse to living in places where people have died. In fact, there’s a law that says if you are selling your house and someone died there either by foul play or suicide, you have to mention it to perspective buyers. (If it was natural causes you’re off the hook.) UR, or at least the part of UR that covers Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures, has taken the bull by the horns, as it were, and is actually offering “special rental apartments” where the previous tenant died on the premises, called tokubetsu boshu jutaku, at half price for one or two years. So if you don’t believe in ghosts or aren’t otherwise superstitious, there are bargains to be had.

Most of these available units are older, less appealing places, but, for instance, a 2DK in Koto Ward in Tokyo, which would normally rent for ¥80,000 a month, is now available for ¥40,000 a month for at least a year. If you go further out to Machida, you can get a 2DK for as little as ¥30,450. And keep in mind that the security deposit (there is no key money or agent fees for UR), which is usually three months rent’s worth, is also based on this half-price. You can browse these units on the UR home page, but you have to apply for them in person at a UR sales office.

Annals of Cheap: Super Hotel

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens Apr. 29

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens April 29

A government-sponsored marketing conference called Service Productivity and Innovation for Growth conducted a survey in Japan earlier this year that attracted some 100,000 respondents, who were supplied with the names of 291 service-related companies comprising 29 industry sectors. They were asked to rate these companies for 100 separate criteria in order to determine “high customer satisfaction.” The number one company, with 82.3 average points, was Oriental Land, which runs Tokyo Disneyland.

At number 13 was Super Hotel, the highest ranking accommodation-related business (though Oriental Land does operate Disney Resorts), even higher than the Imperial Hotel. In a way, it’s an unfair comparison. The infamously expensive Imperial is a “city hotel” while Super Hotel runs a chain of 94 “business hotels.” Anyone who has stayed in both knows the difference: city hotels stress comfort while business hotels stress convenience and economy.

However, even among business hotels Super is special, which explains its high rating. People were just surprised at how good it was for the price, and the price is pretty amazing: as low as ¥4,900 a night for a single room, including breakfast (Japanese or Western). In most of the bigger cities the price is comparably more expensive, but not much. Tokyo, for instance, has nine Super Hotels (10 on Apr. 29, when the Super Hotel in Okachimachi opens), the most expensive of which is in Shimbashi (¥9,000 single) and the cheapest of which is Kameido (¥6,490 single). And when you start going to double and triple rooms, called Super Rooms, the savings get better. A single at the Hakodate Super Hotel is ¥5,480, a double is ¥7,480, and a triple ¥8,480. If you reserve a single room for a whole month in Hakodate you can get it for ¥3,980 a day.

Is it worth it? If you’ve ever stayed at a business hotel, with their tiny windows, plastic “unit baths” and lack of elbow room, you know what to expect, but Super Hotels, which started in Osaka in 1989, offers a little bit more because of its policy of not sweating the extraneous stuff. All the beds are semi-doubles, 34 of the hotels have free public baths (which tend to get raves from regulars), and many rooms have free Internet access. The extraneous stuff they feel you can do without include air conditioning in the elevators and hallways, personnel (the front desk is only manned, depending on the hotel, from 7-10 a.m. and 3-12 p.m.), and guest room telephones. Also, guests prepay for their rooms, usually via vending machines in the lobby, and many of the hotels do not take credit cards.

But Super Hotels is obviously a progressive company. Several branches have rooms and even floors that are exclusively for female guests, and two hotels, one in Fuji City and another in Takamatsu, are completely smoke-free. Also, some are aiming for the tourist market, like the Super Hotel in Nara, with a more upscale atmosphere built around the eco-marketing concept called Lohas.

Super Hotel also has an English Web site.

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