Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Bargain sales aren’t always what they appear to be

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Half price today or twice as much tomorrow?

Half price today or twice as much tomorrow?

On April 25 the Consumer Affairs Agency sent notices (pdf) to 12 nationwide retailers regarding sales of frozen foods. The CAA thinks that the way these sales are advertised purposely misleads shoppers and thus violates the Price Indication Law. The cited stores, which include supermarkets, drug stores and discount chains not named in the media, have regular bargain sales on frozen foods at savings of 30 to 50 percent off “the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices,” but as the CAA points out there is no such thing as a price suggested by the manufacturer when it comes to food. In essence, the stores are “fabricating” discounts.

Frozen food bargain sales have been commonplace for more than decade. In fact, every supermarket and discount drug store has them. They take place on a weekly basis, usually Tuesdays or Wednesdays, and regular patrons thus come to expect them, which means they rarely buy frozen food the rest of the week.

What the CAA is pointing out is that these retailers have convinced shoppers that on those days when frozen foods are “half-price” or “one-third-price” they are cheaper than they “normally” are, but what is normal in this case? The CAA only seems to have cited retailers who use the phrase “suggested manufacturers’ retail price” (kibo kagaku or kori kagaku) in their ads, but even those stores that don’t use the phrase are being cagey with the semantics: Half of what price?

According to the business magazine Toyo Keizai, wholesale prices for merchandise sold in supermarkets and discount drug stores are determined through negotiations between individual retailers and their suppliers, and no retail reference prices are mentioned, must less “suggested,” by the respective manufacturers. Traditionally, bargain sales are carried out to clear excess inventory, but that’s not the case here.

For all intents and purposes the ostensible “sale” prices are the standard ones, since the bulk of a store’s frozen foods are sold on those specified sale days. It’s the other days, when the products cost twice as much, that are the exception. The reason this strategy is applied to frozen food is because consumers are more willing to buy frozen food in bulk since they can be kept for long periods of time in the freezer. So on sale days, shoppers buy more frozen food than they would if there were no bargain sales; it’s just that they do it only once a week.

Uniqlo has applied this same strategy to clothing. Last year the chain expanded its weekly bargain sales from two days to four. Previously, the weekly sales took place on Saturday and Sunday, but now sale periods also include Fridays and Mondays, which means there is a “bargain sale” four days a week. But if you look at the matter a different way, you could simply say that on those four days Uniqlo is selling merchandise at their normal price and on the other days it is selling it at “premium prices.” It’s all in the terminology, and the thinking.

Service contracts and the ‘mendokusai’ factor

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

"E" as in "exasperating"

“E” as in “exasperating”

Last week we received a monthly credit card statement that included the first payment for our emobile portable Wi-Fi service, which we signed up for at the end of February. The charge came to ¥4,642, which was higher than we expected. We had applied at a discount electronics store near our home. From the beginning we understood that the service costs ¥3,880 a month, and while that did not provide us with unlimited Wi-Fi access, the amount of access it did provide was more than enough for our needs.

We made this clear to the saleperson right from the beginning because there were other plans available at higher prices and we didn’t want to inadvertently sign up for one of those. He understood, but had to make his pitches.

The first had to do with the Wi-Fi device itself, which cost ¥33,600. Since the basic contract was for two years, that came to ¥1,400 a month, but because we were signing a two-year contract, the price of the device is waived, which means ¥1,400 would be deducted from the standard monthly fee. That doesn’t mean ¥1,400 is subtracted from the ¥3,880 emobile advertised as the basic monthly service fee. Apparently, ¥3,880 is the fee after the seemingly non-existent ¥1,400 device charge is subtracted.

If you break the contract before the two years are up or change to a different service/device, you have to pay a fee of ¥9,975. And if you don’t inform them that you don’t want to renew your contract at the end of two years, the company automatically renews it. This term has bothered a number of other subscribers, especially since there is only a one-month window at the end of a contract during which you can request that it not be renewed.

The second pitch had to do with options, none of which we took. One was insurance for both the device and the software, which costs ¥525 a month. The salesman didn’t try to push it, but he made a point of explaining that if we didn’t want it we had to “waive” it, meaning we had to actively decline the insurance. It wasn’t a matter of not taking it.

From our understanding, the insurance fee was automatically added to the service fee, which hardly made it an “option.” He said we would have to call the emobile customer support number to formally cancel it — for some reason we couldn’t do it through him — and that we should do it as soon as our Wi-Fi service went into effect, since we would be charged for the insurance almost as soon as we started using the device.

Continue reading about portable Wi-Fi contracts →

Auto sales driven by gas mileage

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Fit to be drived

Fit to be drived

Last week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a prospect that worries American car makers since the trade agreement could remove any remaining tariffs from Japanese cars sold in the U.S., thus making them cheaper and even more attractive to American consumers. Apparently, carmakers in the U.S. don’t think the agreement will sufficiently remove what they deem barriers to American car sales in Japan. The fact that these barriers, which include, in the words of Reuters, “discriminatory taxes, onerous and costly certification procedures for foreign cars and [an] unwillingness by Japanese auto dealers to sell foreign cars,” have not prevented certain European automakers from doing well in Japan may, in fact, indicate that the problem is American products rather than Japanese protectionism. For instance, the U.S. claims that Japan’s preferential tax treatment for kei (light) cars — smaller automobiles whose engine displacement is 660cc — is a trade barrier, but since America doesn’t make kei cars it’s difficult to understand what it’s a barrier to. Kei cars account for about 30 percent of the Japanese car market, which means people like them, and the main reason they like them is their superior gas mileage.

It’s also the main reason for the popularity of hybrids. On March 3, the land ministry announced its most recent findings for the best gas mileage among cars sold in Japan. Toyota’s hybrid Aqua came out in first place with 35.4 km per liter (in JC08 mode). In second place was the first hybrid car sold in Japan, Toyota’s Prius with 32.6km/l. In third place was Toyota’s high-end hybrid Lexus at 30.4km/l, and fourth was Honda’s hybrid Insight. The highest non-hybrid on the list was the Mitsubishi Mirage, which gets 27.2km/l.

Aqua is also the best-selling model in Japan right now. In February, 24,526 Aquas were sold nationwide, with Prius in second place with 23,473. After that, it was Nissan’s Note with 16,497 followed by Honda’s Fit. However, overall kei cars still outsell regular cars and hybrids in terms of units, probably because in addition to good gas mileage they cost less to purchase. Suzuki’s Alto and Mazda’s Carol tied for first among kei cars in terms of fuel efficiency with 30.2km/l. American carmakers will probably not be happy to learn that the government has required all cars sold in Japan to meet stricter efficiency standards by 2015 in accordance with the revised Energy Conservation Law. As it stands, however, a fair number of domestic models already meet these standards.

Of course, the gas mileage figures offered by the government and the automakers themselves should be used purely for comparative purposes. One would probably have to drive straight on an expressway on perfectly balanced tires going downhill with the wind at one’s back to achieve 35km/l in an Aqua, but last week we decided to try one out for a day trip to Gunma. We picked up the car in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, at a branch of Toyota Rental & Leasing. The fee was ¥7,000 for the day, including the use of a car navigation system, plus ¥1,000 for insurance.

We drove about 250 km and ended up spending ¥1,372 for gasoline, which worked out to about 9 liters or a little less than 25km/l. That’s much less than the advertised rate, but better than we expected considering that more than a third of the drive was spent on surface roads rather than expressways. But we didn’t use the air conditioner, either. And when we checked several websites dedicated to jissai nenpi, or fuel efficiency under real driving conditions, the average gas mileage for the Aqua is around 21.5km/l.

For comparison’s sake, in January we rented Nissan’s compact (but not kei) March from Nikoniko rentals for ¥4,000 a day with insurance included but no car navigation system. We drove 140 km, none on expressways, and ended up using 8.37 liters, which means gas mileage was 17.9km/l (advertised: 24; real: 20). The advantage of the hybrid is obvious, and will likely become more so when Honda comes out with a new version of its hybrid Fit in August. The company is already boasting that gas mileage will exceed 36, thus topping Aqua. And it will be cheaper, too.

Energy conservation isn’t just for summers any more

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Last summer when the antinuclear movement was receiving a lot of media coverage, the government and utilities justified their plans for reopening nuclear power plants with statistics purportedly showing how dangerously close to capacity electricity usage is in the summer, when everyone has their air conditioners on. Thanks to energy conservation efforts on everyone’s part there were no overloads, but in terms of households, reibo (cooling) only accounts for 2 percent of overall energy usage when measured in calories. Danbo (heating), on the other hand, accounts for 25 percent of home-energy usage.

Fill ‘er up: Kerosene station in Chiba

Of course, there are various methods for heating homes in Japan. In addition to electricity, there is natural gas, liquid propane gas and kerosene (toyu), but electricity has been increasing in recent decades as a means for home-heating. Between 1980 and 2005, the use of kerosene, which is utilized in space-heating “stoves,” declined from 71 to 45 percent in terms of heating needs in the Kanto area, while both natural gas and LPG increased from 21 to 35 percent and electricity from 8 to 20 percent. However, when you factor in all of a home’s energy needs — cooking, lighting, bathing, etc. — electricity accounts for 50 percent, kerosene 17 percent, natural gas 20 percent and LPG 10 percent of household energy consumption. That was for all homes in Japan in 2009. In 1973, electricity only accounted for 28 percent of overall household energy usage. So with the promotion of all-electric houses in recent years, the overall portion of home heating by electricity has probably gone up even more.

The peak period for electricity usage in the wintertime is between 5 and 6 p.m., and during the current sharp cold spell, electricity usage as reported by Tokyo Electric Power has been over 90 percent during the peak time slot. The main difference between wintertime and summertime is that power plants reduce capacity in the winter, so 90 percent represents less power usage in the winter than it does in the summer. Most air conditioners run on electricity, but as shown above heating systems use a variety of methods, so electrical usage is deemed to be less. But since electricity usage in the winter is on the increase, why aren’t power companies warning people to cut back when the usage gets close to the limit, as they did last summer?

Continue reading about wintertime energy conservation →

Working the system: Beware of doctors with private rooms

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Sleeping alone in a place like this could cost you.

Japan’s national health insurance system isn’t perfect, but it’s fairly airtight. Unless you have a condition that might benefit from some sort of experimental treatment which has yet to be approved by the government, everything is covered, meaning you won’t pay more than 30 percent of the cost of that treatment. And if the amount you do pay exceeds a certain amount, the government will pay for most of that as well, so there is very little danger of, say, a patient having to mortgage his house to pay for care, even for a so-called catastrophic illness, which is something that occasionally happens in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t medical situations where people end up paying a lot of money; it’s just that they probably don’t have to. This is why we’ve always been mystified by the supplemental health insurance business in Japan. Why buy extra insurance when the national system takes care of everything? One of the main reasons is private rooms, which the government doesn’t pay for. National insurance covers overnight stays, but only for non-private rooms, and only a very limited amount. If a patient wants a private or semi-private room, or even a special type of bed in a non-private room, he or she has to pay for it out of pocket.

Some doctors use this exception to make money. An acquaintance of ours, whom we’ll call A-san, recently told us a story about a visit she made to a private gynecology/obstetrics clinic in Saitama Prefecture. A-san was worried about her 77-year-old mother, who lives separately from her and has been suffering from a gynecological disorder for almost a year. Though she had been to her local hospital, the doctor there said he could not treat the condition properly, and while it wasn’t life threatening, it made everyday life difficult. A-san’s mother is on a fixed income and not tech-savvy, so A-san Googled the name of her condition and the first clinic that came up in the search said it had experience treating elderly women for that particular condition and happened to be not far from her mother’s home. She made an appointment.

The clinic’s owner and only doctor was quite chatty, and, after examining her mother, he told A-san that she needed an operation, and that because she had special insurance for elderly people she would only pay 10 percent of the surgery cost. In addition, since the surgery was expensive, she could apply for the kogaku iryo (high cost medicine) system, which would refund most of the 10 percent she would normally have ended up paying. In the end, she would only have to pay ¥44,400 for the actual operation.

But there was a catch. The clinic, which mostly catered to expecting mothers, only offered private rooms for ¥16,900 a night. The doctor said that following the operation, A-san’s mother would need to remain in the clinic for 10 nights, so altogether the operation would cost more than ¥200,000, not counting transportation to and from the hospital and whatever medication she would have to take. An interesting justification for extra charges...

NHK uses carrot and stick approach to get your money

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Demand what you deserve: NHK’s On Demand home page

The good news first. Starting Oct. 1, NHK will be charging slightly less for subscriptions. If your account is only for regular terrestrial broadcasts (NHK-G and NHK-E), the price drops from ¥1,345 a month to ¥1,225, and if your account also includes satellite (NHK BS1 and NHK BS Premium) it goes from ¥2,290 a month to ¥2,170. The bad news, at least for corporate or institutional subscribers, is that the public broadcaster is cracking down on what it believes are scofflaws, particularly multiple-set users who don’t pay for every single TV they have.

On Sept. 10, the Tokyo District Court started hearing a case involving a lawsuit that NHK brought against the hotel chain Toyoko Inn. NHK is demanding the company pay ¥550 million for the period of January to July of this year. The money represents subscription fees for TVs in 236 hotels comprising some 34,000 rooms, which NHK claims Toyoko Inn has not paid in full. Toyoko’s defense is that it has for years had a contract with NHK to pay an annual subscription fee of ¥230 million, representing one-fourth of all the TVs in its possession.

The hotel chain says that it is unfair for NHK to demand fees for all the TV sets since rooms are not always occupied and even when they are guests don’t necessarily watch TV. Toyoko Inn’s lawyers told the Asahi Shimbun that NHK just “suddenly” demanded full subscription fees for all the rooms. He added that if NHK acknowledged the reality of the occupancy rate then the company would negotiate a new blanket subscription fee in good faith.

Continue reading about NHK's collection policies →

Buy now to beat the consumption tax increase … or don’t

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

Lookin’ rosy: Diagram of new Tokyo condo with flowers marking the units that have been sold

The term kakekomi kounyu means rushing to buy something at the last minute after hesitating for a long time. The implication is that there is some time limit involved. It’s being used a lot now in the media with reference to the consumption tax, which is scheduled to rise from 5 to 8 percent in April 2014, and then again to 10 percent in October 2015. It’s assumed that many consumers will try to buy big-ticket items before the increase goes into effect in order to save money, and that a good portion will wait until the last minute.

Some economists are advising people to not wait too long, especially if they’re thinking about buying a new home. Recent articles in both the Asahi Shimbun and the weekly magazine Shukan Post say pretty much the same thing on the subject: If you’re thinking about buying a home or a car, you should start planning right now. The Asahi uses the example of a ¥30 million condominium. You can figure that about a third of this is the price of the land, and since land sales are exempt from consumption tax it means you’ll pay tax on ¥20 million.

At present, the tax will come to ¥1 million, but after April 2014 it will go up to ¥1.6 million, and then 18 months later to ¥2 million. If you want to take advantage of this savings, experts say you should move now, because the tax is levied not when you sign the contract for the new home, but when occupancy of the property is “transferred over” (hikiwatashi) into your name, and in most cases the average time between the point when a particular unit goes on sale and the point when the buyer takes possession of it is one year.

So if you want to beat the consumption tax raise you have to start looking now. That’s why so many real estate flyers for new homes stress that “now is the chance.” They really do mean “now,” as in “today.” Moreover, realtors and developers are saying that since there will be a rush to beat the tax, demand will be high and so the longer you wait the less likely it will be that you can find what you want. Prices may even be higher the closer you get to April 2014.

Continue reading about making big purchases before the tax hike →

RSS

Recent posts