Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Whatever you do, don’t call Nestle’s coffee ‘instant’

Friday, August 15th, 2014

According to the business magazine Toyo Keizai, on July 24, Nestle Japan announced that it was quitting four industry groups it belonged to: the Japan Fair Trade Coffee Conference, the All Japan Coffee Association, the Japan Instant Coffee Association and the Japan Coffee Importers Association. These groups have, according to Toyo, had problems acknowledging Nestle’s description of its new manufacturing method for coffee products that it started using last September.

Nestle no longer calls its Gold Blend and Nescafe Excella brands “instant coffees,” but rather “regular soluble coffee,” and insists that others do the same. Two months ago, these associations revised their industry fair competition rules, saying that they couldn’t allow Nestle to use such a description in their advertising, so Nestle decided to not work with them any more.

Nestle's Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle’s Dolce Gusto capsule-style self-service machine set up in a grocery store

Nestle says the manufacturing method is different, so it has a right to call its coffee something different. Most coffee called “instant” these days is made by freeze-drying liquid concentrated coffee liquor. Soluble coffee, however, is a “unique” blend of pulverized roasted coffee beans and dried coffee concentrate. To the layman and, obviously, other members of the coffee industry in Japan, that description doesn’t qualify as much of a distinction, but Nestle wants to stress that the new method makes for coffee that is closer to the real thing, meaning coffee brewed from ground roasted beans.

An executive of the All Japan Coffee Association explained to Toyo that his group’s reluctance to accept the new designation is based on complaints it’s received from consumer groups that say people may buy Nestle’s new product under the mistaken assumption that it’s “real regular coffee.” And as far as the new designation goes, people who don’t know what “soluble” means may think that regular coffee grounds dissolve in hot water, which, of course, they don’t. In any case, “soluble” is a pretty good description of instant coffee in general, so the distinction is moot.

But Nestle Japan can pretty much do whatever it wants since its products account for 70 percent of the — pardon us — instant coffee market in Japan. It wasn’t until 1960 that the importation of coffee beans to Japan was liberalized. The next year importers started bringing in instant coffee, and by the middle of the decade Nestle’s Nescafe was the best-selling brand in Japan, as it was in the world.

Then, in 1967, Nestle Japan started selling Gold Blend, the first instant coffee to use the freeze-dried method developed by Nestle at its headquarters in Switzerland. The Japan affiliate was nervous, though, because it thought Gold Blend would “cannibalize” sales of Nescafe, so it made two different advertising campaigns: Nescafe for everyone, Gold Blend for more discerning consumers.

The Gold Blend commercials became famous for using well-known “artistic” talent, like novelists, classical musicians and kabuki actors. The ads were a success. Instead of eating up sales of Nescafe (which soon became Excella) Gold Blend’s sales augmented them. Eventually, Excella had a 50 percent share and Gold Blend a 20 percent share.

In 2012, Nestle Japan chalked up ¥7.88 trillion in sales, which boiled down to ¥1.2 trillion in profits. Respectively, those figures represented 2.3 percent and 25 percent growth over the previous year. Nestle is the biggest food-related company in the world. Their products are sold in 140 countries, and the headquarters refers to its Japanese business as a “miracle,” since demand is shrinking almost everywhere else. And it’s not just coffee. Nestle also makes Kit Kat, the most ubiquitous chocolate treat in Japan because of its auspicious associations with entrance exams. Until 2002 Nestle Japan spent ¥3 billion on TV commercials to reinforce this association and now distributes free Kit Kat bars in business hotels where university entrance exam takers stay to study before the test. They’ve become indispensable.

Now Nestle’s big scheme is Nescafe Barista, a series of refill systems it is selling to homes. The system is built around coffee making machines that use prepared single-serving capsules of its soluble coffee, and this is where the designation is important. Though it may be instant coffee by another name, that new name gives more of an impression of brewed coffee, which is important for another new system, called Nescafe Ambassador, that is being promoted to offices. Rather than capsules, these machines use larger containers of soluble coffee.

The pitch is made directly to employees of companies rather than people in charge of office services. An employee registers as an “ambassador.” Nestle then sends him or her a coffee machine, a supply of soluble coffee and a piggy bank. The employee sets up the machine in the office and other employees who want coffee deposit ¥20 in the piggy bank whenever they enjoy a cup. Refill containers last about a month or so, after which the money is sent to Nestle.

Conventional office coffee services involve a company representative who maintains and fills the machines, adding significantly to the cost. Ambassador cuts costs by having the employees take care of everything, and is meant to replace office-set vending machines and even convenience store coffee, which are now the main sources of break-time refreshment, since many companies are doing away with free coffee and tea on the premises to cut down on expenses. Coffee from vending machines and convenience stores cost at least ¥100 a cup/can.

Three months after starting the system in 2012, Nestle had distributed 60,000 machines. Toyo says that the company projects more than 100,000 machines per year from now on. And since there are an estimated 6 million offices in Japan, that’s a lot of potential soluble coffee sales, though it should be noted that canned coffee, which for years was unique to Japan, commands a sizable share of the coffee market, especially among workers, both white collar and blue. But then, Nestle sells canned coffee, too.

Inflation Watch: Food manufacturers offering less

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

CIMG3562

Use your noodle: ¥198 regular price 5-pack of Aeon instant ramen vs. ¥198 sale price 3-pack of Sapporo Ichiban instant chanpon

Economists in Japan have been carefully scrutinizing buying trends since the consumption tax was raised in April. Everyone has noted that buying has dipped by at least 4 percent since the 3 percent tax hike went into effect, but many think that it will rebound later in the year since so many consumers bought a lot of stuff just before the hike. And it is also true that some prices of goods and services have gone up, as well, especially food, but for the most part makers have tried to keep them the same, despite the fact that the lower yen has resulted in higher prices for imported ingredients, not to mention increased demand for all food products in developing countries. In addition, the higher price of oil has boosted the cost for packaging.

There’s, of course, one tried-and-true solution to the problem of stabilizing resale prices when costs go up: reducing volume. Rather than raise prices, especially at a time when consumers are specially sensitive to any change, manufacturers trim the amount being sold, according to Asahi Shimbun. Nippon Ham, for instance, did not change prices on 82 items in its product line but did reduce the amount being sold by an average of 10 percent. The company’s European sausage used to come in bags of 7 weighing 140 grams. For the same price, it’s now 6 sausages, or 120 grams. The company’s main competitor, Ito Ham, however, has decided to take a chance and increased the price of its pork products, saying that it was inevitable because worldwide demand for pork has risen recently.

The confection industry has been affected as well. Lotte cut the volume and weight of 6 products. Meiji shrunk 10 of its chocolate items, citing a 20 percent increase in cocoa prices from two years ago: Its best-selling Almond Chocolate treat went from 23 pieces to 21.

Chain restaurants are also dealing with the environment. Ringer Hut has increased prices on a number of its chanpon dishes by 3 to 5 percent, mainly due to higher prices for shrimp grown in Thailand, as well as higher transportation costs.

Dairy prices and volumes have changed, but for a slightly different reason. Morinaga has increased the price of a standard block of butter by ¥10, and cheese prices by about 7 percent. Snow Brand is boosting prices for 17 cheese items by 5 to 14 percent. Since Japan’s dairy industry is protected, much to the disappointment of the U.S., the problem isn’t imports or competition for ingredients abroad, but rather economic factors within Japan. Production of milk has been dropping due to an acute labor shortage and the fact that as older dairy farmers are retiring there is no one to take over their businesses.

But even if you’re on the lookout for such price and volume changes, you can sometimes be fooled. Recently, we came across packages of Sapporo Ichiban instant ramen in a discount store for less than ¥200, which we thought was very cheap for a so-called name brand. Usually, multi-packs of instant ramen from companies like Sapporo and Nissin cost more than ¥300 regularly and about ¥250 on sale. Private generic brands usually cost about ¥200 for the same amount.

So when we saw the cheap Sapporo Ichiban pack and bought it, it wasn’t until we left the cashier that we noticed the pack only contained three servings. Traditionally, multi-pack ramen has five servings. It was a stupid mistake, and we wondered how many other people picked up the pack without realizing. The point is that Sapporo Ichiban didn’t sell 3-packs of instant ramen before the consumption tax hike, so it’s obviously a sales strategy, and one we’ll just call clever, not underhanded.

Diamonds are suddenly everybody’s best friend

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Several years ago the term “urban mining” took off. It referred to the discovery of precious metals that were “buried” in people’s homes in the form of personal possessions like jewelry and home electronics that they weren’t using. A lot of cell phones, for instance, use gold and other valuable materials in their circuits, and when the price of these substances was high, brokers would pay premium prices for them, no matter where they came from or what form they were in.

Komehyo outlet in Ginza, Tokyo

Komehyo outlet in Ginza, Tokyo

At the time, gems were not coveted so much, but that’s changed. Right now, the price of diamonds on the world market is about 30 percent higher than it was a year ago, according to a recent article in Chunichi Shimbun, thanks to a healthier world economy. Consequently, well-to-do people in Asia, North America and the Middle East are craving diamonds, and foreign buyers, particularly from the U.S., China, India and Dubai, are flocking to Japan because they think there are a lot of the rocks here “sleeping” in people’s closets and vanity cases.

The reason is simple. During the bubble period of the late ’80s, when the value of various assets was higher than it probably should have been, people with even a little money bought a lot of jewelry that they don’t wear any more. Many of these people probably have forgotten they even have diamonds.

Komehyo, the Nagoya-based retailer that specializes in recycling high-end merchandise such as designer accessories and expensive jewelry, is spearheading the drive to get Japanese people to dig into their tansu (wardrobes). As one of the company’s store managers told Chunichi, another reason foreign buyers are descending on Japan is that the diamonds are already cut, and used cut diamonds tend to be cheaper than new ones, though there really isn’t any difference in quality. Komehyo is hoping to sell used diamonds in bulk and is offering premium prices to anyone who wants to unload theirs. The chain has launched a Diamond Purchase Fair at all its 20 outlets throughout Japan.

In order to get a handle on the market, Komehyo conducted a survey among men and women over the age of 20. They found that, on average, respondents have each spent about ¥780,000 on “jewelry, watches, bags and brand goods” during their life so far.

Several years ago Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo, a dealer in gold and other precious metals, carried out its own survey and found that 80 percent of female respondents have jewelry they don’t wear any more, either because they no longer like the design, or lost one earring or just forgot about it. The company calculates that the average woman in this group has ¥40,000 worth of jewelry they never wear. Tanaka was interested in gold, however,

Based on its own findings, Komehyo estimates the average person possesses about ¥160,000 yen’s worth of jewelry and other valuables that they don’t use any more, which means there could be as much as ¥15 trillion worth of diamonds in people’s homes.

The price is right, but sometimes difficult to read

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Do the right thing: this supermarket tells customers that all prices indicated include the consumption tax

A quick survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communiciations has revealed that the average price of goods and services, excluding “fresh produce,” since the consumption tax hike went into effect April 1 has increased 2.7 percent, which sounds about right since the hike itself was 3 percent. When the consumer price index is announced next month, the ministry projects that it will be 3 percent higher than it was a year ago, so everything is going as planned.

Of course, that’s the word from on high. Here in the real world, meaning in the stores where we all shop, the situation isn’t that clear-cut.

Some consumers will notice that prices have gone up much more than what they would perceive as 3 percent, while some prices have actually gone down, and many prices have stayed the same.

CONTINUE READING about post sales-tax prices →

Consumption tax hike projected to increase appeal of electronic money

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The ones: You'll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

The ones: You’ll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

Last month the national mint intensified production of ¥1 coins in anticipation of the consumption tax hike on April 1. The Ministry of Finance wants 26 million of them manufactured by the end of March, and then another 160 million after the start of the new fiscal year. Once the consumption tax goes up from 5 to 8 percent, retailers will need more small change.

With a 5 percent tax, it’s relatively easy for stores to limit their use of coins since they can set prices based on multiples of 5. Maybe it’s possible to do that with multiples of 8, too, but not right away, and many fear they will not have enough ¥1 coins on hand when the tax hike goes into effect. An employee of the nationwide ¥100 shop CanDo told Asahi Shimbun, “Altough we sometimes receive ¥1 coins in payment from customers, we don’t recycle them as change to other customers, but now we’re trying to hoard as many as possible.”

If the consumption tax increase is an inconvenience to retailers, it’s even more of a pain in the neck for the government, since it costs between ¥2 and ¥3 to make a ¥1 coin, which is 100 percent aluminum. It’s the first time the mint has produced ¥1 coins on anything approaching this scale in four years. It will also produce an extra 100 million ¥5 coins, just to be safe. The government doesn’t want to relive the small change panic that happened in 1989, when the 3 percent consumption tax was first introduced.

CONTINUE READING about the consumption tax hike's effect on e-money →

Consumption tax rush approaching peak time

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Curb your enthusiasm: Don't rush out and buy an aircon to beat the tax hike since it will probably be cheaper afterwards anyway

Curb your enthusiasm: Don’t rush out and buy an aircon to beat the tax hike since it will probably be cheaper afterwards anyway

Retailers continue to enjoy good business in the runup to the consumption tax hike on April 1, but some are a bit anxious that consumers may not understand the situation sufficiently. Tokyo Shimbun visited a few Tokyo department stores where the rush to buy is especially intense, causing them to post clarifying announcements to head off any attendant disappointment.

At Isetan, these notices are posted prominently in the furniture and bedding sections, as well as the eyeglass section, meaning departments where people order merchandise and then take delivery later. As one Isetan employee explained to the paper, the consumption tax is applied on the day of receipt of merchandise, not on the day it was ordered or even on the day it was paid for. A good portion of department store sales are order-made products, and the notices are cautioning customers to make sure they understand the date their stuff will be ready to pick up, otherwise they may end up paying more than they thought they would.

Keio department store is telling all its customers about the rule so that “there is no misunderstanding.” Daimaru Matsuzaka, near Tokyo Station, has seen sales of order-made men’s suits climb to 14.4 percent higher than last year, a new record, but the closer they get to March the more nervous they are since some suits take longer to make than others. Takashimaya in Nihonbashi is apparently the most conscientious department store, posting very detailed explanations in all its sections that insist the earlier you order something, the more likely it will be you can avoid the extra 3 percent charge.

However, a related article in the weekly Aera says that consumers shouldn’t worry that much, since there’s a good chance people will buy something now to avoid the tax hike only to end up paying more. Some retailers are not as straightforward as the above-mentioned department stores, using the rush as a means of getting customers to sign up for credit cards in order to compound their savings without realizing that in the end they’ll probably have to pay handling fees that will negate such savings, unless they happen to be frequent patrons of the store, in which case they probably already have a card. The magazine interviewed a few housewives who plan to make big purchases ahead of the tax hike.

One woman says she is going to buy all new household appliances, while another in her early 30s will buy baby shower and wedding gifts for friends who will celebrate these happy events in the near future, but as she said, “often these gifts go on sale in July, so I don’t know if I’m actually saving money by buying them now.”

A financial planner told Aera that it may be a mistake to buy some big ticket items now. Air conditioner sales, for instance, tend to be their lowest in March, which is between the cold and the hot seasons. That’s also when manufacturers put out new models, which means last year models will be quite cheap, so he advises to wait. Even after April 1, the price could be considerably less than they are now, even taking the tax hike into consideration. But automobiles and home improvement work, he says, should be ordered right now, if it already isn’t too late, because they require time before final delivery and there are no bargain sales associated with either. For mini-cars (kei jidosha), in particular, now is the time to buy since next year the car tax for buying one will increase by 50 percent.

In the end, here are items that Aera recommends buying now to beat the tax: household appliances; over-the-counter drugs that can be stored for long periods, like aspirin; gold, since the purchaser can buy at a lower tax rate and sell at a higher one; theme park tickets; long-term commuting passes and train tickets in bulk (kaisuken).

Items that Aera doesn’t recommend buying now: PCs and TVs, because they always go on sale; apparel and accessories, which tend to be much cheaper during semiannual bargain sales; real estate and stocks; gems and platinum, which, unlike gold, are more vulnerable to price fluctuations; and everyday necessities like toilet paper, which people all over the world tend to buy up whenever there is some sort of financial panic.

For customers of Japan’s biggest bank, it’s about to become harder to avoid fees

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Mickey Mouse club: passbook and Direct card for MUFG account holders

Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Bank (MUFG) is Japan’s largest bank in terms of number of branches, but there are none within the borders of the city where we live, which is only an hour by train from Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Since all of our freelance work is paid through the MUFG account we set up in the Aoyama branch years ago, this could be a problem, but MUFG offers online banking services and there are plenty of convenience stores with ATMs within walking distance of our apartment in case we need cash.

But that’s going to change on Dec. 20, when MUFG’s new ATM policy goes into effect. For people who live near a branch of the bank, the changes are a good thing. At present, account holders can withdraw money from MUFG ATMs without having to pay a handling fee if they do so between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. At all other times they have to pay an extra ¥105. Starting December 20, the time for free withdrawals is extended to 9 p.m., and that includes weekends and holidays, which will also be free from now on. The ¥105 fee is still in effect from 9 p.m. to 8:45 a.m.

Things are different, however, for convenience store ATMs. Presently, account holders for certain banks can use CS ATMs for free during the day on weekdays. For MUFG customers it’s the same as it is for bank AMTs — no fee between 8:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. But starting December 20, a ¥105 fee will be charged for withdrawals from CS ATMs between 8:45 and 6, and a ¥210 fee for withdrawals at other hours. So that means we can’t avoid paying a fee if we need cash quickly.

But there are ways to circumvent the fees if you’re an MUFG customer, it’s just that they’re not that easy to understand, so we’ll try to make it simple.

In principle, customers who have accounts called Super Futsu Yokin (Main Bank Plus) can withdraw cash from ATMs for free, though it depends on your “stage” and the type of ATM.

White stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥100,000 you can withdraw cash from an MUFG bank ATM for free any time, even in the middle of the night. This also applies to account holders who have an MUFG-issued credit card, in which case a minimum balance is not required. This no-fee condition is effective from the 20th of the following month until the 19th of the month after that.

Silver stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥300,000, or if you receive your salary in your account and your salary is at least ¥100,000 a month, then you can withdraw cash from bank ATMs anytime for free and up to three times during the following month from CS ATMs for free any time. Again, the month is counted as starting from the next 20th to the following 19th. Note that “salary” has to be transferred as such (kyūryō) and printed in your passbook.

Platinum stage: At the end of the month, if your account balance is at least ¥5 million, or if you have taken out a housing loan with MUFG and the balance is more than ¥5 million, there are no fees anywhere for anything. You can also make up to three money transfers (usually ¥315) in a month’s time for free.

One more catch: To qualify for any of these deals you have to register your account for MUFG Direct, which is MUFG’s internet banking service. Good luck.

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