Archive for the ‘Food & drink’ Category

Retailers and restaurants get slippery with unagi prices

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

July 22 is doyo no ushi no hi — day of the ox.” It is not a holiday to mark the cultural contributions of bovine, but rather a reminder that there are 18 more days until a seasonal change, during which falls the day of the ox — one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Traditionally in Japan people eat grilled eel (unagi), on this day, because it is believed that eel strengthens physical stamina during the hottest days of summer. But this year foodies and purveyors of unagi are faced with a problem, since eel in the wild is becoming increasingly scarce and may soon end up on a list of endangered species. The fisheries agency reports that the amount of eel fry bought by wholesalers in Japan this year has averaged 25 percent less than last year.

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya

So it was definitely surprising when Daiei, one of Japan’s major supermarket chains, announced on July 11 that it would be selling packaged unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) in its stores for 20 percent less than last summer’s price on July 13-15 and July 20-22. According to Asahi Shimbun the price of unagi fry is now as much as 6.5 times what it was in 2009.

In most retail outlets, the price of prepared grilled eel is 26 percent higher than it was last summer. Usually, unagi that goes on sale in July is bought by Daiei in bulk sometime after January of the same year. It is then processed and frozen by a contractor. However, anticipating the rise in prices Daiei bought its unagi last fall and asked its contractor to carry out processing and freezing “when it had the time to do so,” thus saving money. Also, Daiei usually buys unagi for lunch boxes and unagi for packaged sushi separately, but this year they bought unagi for both at the same time in bulk, saving even more money.

But the real reason they can charge less is because they want to. Daiei admits that it will lose money during these two three-day periods by selling unagi kabayaki for 20 percent less. The supermarket is using unagi as a loss leader, a means of getting customers into its stores, where they will buy other things. And it seems to be working. Daiei started accepting pre-orders last month. Another market chain, Seiyu, announced that despite increases in wholesale prices, it will sell domestic unagi kabayaki at the same price as last summer: ¥1,470 for 140 grams. Seiyu expects sales to be 10 percent higher than last year.

Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to have no choice but to raise prices, but the amount of increase depends on the type of eatery. Asahi says that Tokyo ryotei — upscale, reservation-only restaurants — have increased unagi dishes by about ¥400 since last year, and famous restaurants that specialize in unagi have raised prices by as much as ¥1,000 per dish.

However, chain restaurants are trying to keep the increase to a minimum. Many sushi chains that usually charge ¥100 per plate serve unaju (grilled eel over rice) in the summertime, though usually only for takeout. One of these chains, Kura Sushi, is advertising unadon (eel over rice in a bowl) for only ¥598. That’s pretty cheap compared to gyudon (beef bowl) chains, which also do good business with unadon in the summer. Sukiya, the biggest gyudon chain, is selling unadon for ¥780, while Yoshinoya has increased its eel bowl ¥30 since last summer to ¥680. In 2010 it was only ¥500. Both Sukiya and Yoshinoya buy their unagi from China, but insist that they supervise the raising and harvest themselves, without relying on middlemen, to ensure quality.

Summer travel biz shows signs of recovery

Friday, July 12th, 2013

So close, and so far away

So close, and so far away

According to statistics released by Japan Travel Bureau on July 3, overseas travel this summer is projected to be up by 5.8 percent from last year, though continued sour relations with China and South Korea have seen fewer Japanese travelers this year to those two destinations. Another important consideration that doesn’t seem to have had a bad effect is the higher value of the dollar and other currencies against the yen. In terms of numbers, 2.6 million have reservations to travel overseas between July 15 and Aug. 31. The main bright spot is Europe, which will see a 15 percent boost in Japanese visitors as opposed to 2012. Also, Southeast Asia seems to be maintaining its popularity as a vacation spot. The average amount of money being spent per person on foreign travel this summer is ¥243,000, which is ¥11,800 more than was spent in 2012.

In addition, 76.2 million people have domestic travel plans this summer that involve more than one night away from home, which is the highest number since 2000. Even better, the average amount of money spent per person for these trips is ¥35,010, or ¥1,280 more than last summer. Several circumstances are credited with pushing up these numbers: the 30th anniversary of Tokyo Disney Resort; renovations to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture; and Mount Fuji’s recent listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and the intense media coverage that preceded it.

Continue reading about the recovery of tourism in Japan →

Deflation watch: Kabocha

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

The main story at the heart of Abenomics as far as the Japanese media is concerned is that Japanese exporters are making more money since the Liberal Democratic Party regained power. Secondarily, energy costs are rising thanks to a related increase in the dollar against the yen, not to mention imported wheat prices, which affect all sorts of processed foods in Japan. Many food-related manufacturers started raising prices on July 1 as a result.

So far, the price of imported fresh produce hasn’t been affected that much. Last year we reported on the very low price of bananas due to specific circumstances, and since then the price has gone up quite a bit owing to a typhoon that destroyed much of the Philippines’ crop. However, the prices of other fruits and vegetables that tend to be imported in large amounts haven’t changed significantly. If anything, some local produce may have come down in price and thus become more competitive, notably kabocha, the Japanese style of pumpkin, often called buttercup squash in English.

Kabocha is grown in Japan but is mainly available in the fall and early winter. During the rest of the year it is imported mainly Mexico and New Zealand, but also from New Caledonia and South Korea. Demand is so strong that Japanese companies have been running farms in these countries for almost 20 years to grow kabocha exclusively. New Zealand first started exporting the vegetable to Japan in 1988. Actually, China, India and Russia produce much more pumpkin and other types of squash but the kind they grow is not necessarily popular here. (Also, there seems to be some issue with China’s use of agrichemicals.) Japanese prefer a strain referred to as kuri-kabocha, which is drier.

Normally, the price of Japanese kabocha is two to three times that of the imported kind. In April at the Tokyo Central Produce Market, domestic kabocha was going for ¥356 per kg, while foreign kabocha was only about ¥97. However, lately the price of Japanese kabocha has come down to almost even with foreign kabocha, which is a remarkable drop. Last week at our local supermarket kabocha from Mexico was only a little less expensive than kabocha grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s not clear if this is due to higher import prices because of the rising dollar or just that the domestic product is suddenly cheaper. It’s probably both, since Japanese farmers have to contend with Mexican kabocha almost year-round now that there are two growing seasons for kabocha in Mexico.

Also, kabocha, once a standard item in the Japanese diet, lost popularity some years ago and seems to be making a big comeback now among health-conscious families — kabocha contains more calcium than milk does — so farmers are producing as much as they can, thus bringing the price down.

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.

Deflation watch: gyudon

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Before the fall

Before the fall

Good news for beef lovers. On April 10 gyudon (beef bowl) chain Yoshinoya announced it would cut the price of its standard namimori serving by ¥100 to ¥280 starting April 18. Sukiya, the No. 1 gyudon chain, was selling its namimori version for ¥250 until April 12, and No. 3 in the race, Matsuya, was doing the same thing until April 15.

At the press conference where Yoshinoya made the announcement, company president Shuji Abe told reporters that Yoshinoya felt it could not reach its desired sales target “with prices as they are,” and since “price is the biggest factor affecting sales,” they decided to cut it by more than a fourth. Though Yoshinoya’s two rivals are ending their own price-cut campaigns this week, they carry them out on a fairly regular basis, so it’s likely they will react in kind to the announcement.

In reporting the announcement, the Asahi Shimbun reporter remarked that, although consumers will certainly appreciate the lower price, how can Yoshinoya hope to make a profit after such a drastic cut? Moreover, what does the move say about the government’s strategy of boosting inflation? Yoshinoya’s Abe stressed that the business environment has become “even more difficult” owing to the decrease in the yen’s value, which makes importing beef more expensive. But he also said that the company will still be able to turn a profit because it plans to import even more beef and thus can expect cheaper wholesale prices now that the regulations with regard to beef imports have changed.

In 2004, imports were restricted due to the BSE scare, but those restrictions have now been lifted, and beef from older animals can be sold in Japan. In addition, Yoshinoya plans to cut its retail personnel by “making the work routine in restaurants more efficient.” So even if the prices for the main product drop by 25 percent, according to company projections based on past experience the number of customers should increase by 30 percent, and if that happens sales will increase 15 to 20 percent.

A food industry analyst pointed out something else to the Asahi: Fast food in general has become cheaper in the past 10 years or so, and consumers have just become accustomed to the fact. There seems to be an upper limit to what they will pay, and chain businesses know this. What that means is that these businesses will fall into a permanent state of price competition, even as the cost of ingredients goes up. That means personnel costs will not rise; if anything they’ll have to be cut. And restaurants that don’t belong to chains will be squeezed out. For a while Yoshinoya tried to compete in terms of quality and selection by adding new products to their line, but obviously they’ve abandoned that strategy and returned to price competition.

This is not the kind of outcome the government wants, but consumers have become so used to lower prices they probably won’t spend more except for basic necessities, and the retailers who can keep their prices down will make profits through volume. Much has been made in the media of how department stores are suddenly enjoying better sales, but their customers tend to be people with larger amounts of discretionary income through investments in stocks and foreign currencies, both of which are going up. Such people spend their windfalls on expensive watches. They are not representative of the general public, much of which still decide their spending regimens based on wages and salaries, and despite the government’s hopes and efforts those aren’t likely to rise any time soon.

Japan has become a nation of coupon clippers and bargain hunters. It’s a hard habit to break.

Deflation watch: Retort curry

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Just add rice.

The newly elected Liberal Democratic Party government and the Bank of Japan have set an inflation target of 2 percent as a means of reviving the economy. It’s a plan that has been met with as much skepticism as approval, but what sort of impact will it have on the average person? According to an analysis in the Asahi Shimbun, inflation has only exceeded 2 percent several times in the last 25 years. In 1989, when the consumption tax went into effect, and 1997, when the tax was raised, consumer prices spiked for obvious reasons. In the early 90s, after the bubble burst, it went up due to an increase in the global price of oil, but during that period wages also went up by 4.8 percent, so the increase wasn’t that noticeable. In the summer of 2008, just before the subprime crisis, consumer prices went up by 2.4 percent, also due to a rise in energy costs, but wages actually decreased by 0.3 percent. It’s this dynamic between consumer prices and wages that determines how the public “feels” inflation. According to Japan’s Tax Bureau, the average income of salaried workers in 1997 was ¥4.67 million, and in 2011 it was ¥4.09 million. In terms of total money, Japanese salaried employees earn ¥25 trillion less than they did at the peak of the bubble era. Some of this loss in buying power has been offset by the attendant decrease in retail prices. Anyone who lived in Japan during the bubble will tell you that consumer prices were very high, especially when compared to those in other countries, so the subsequent drop doesn’t seem unnatural.

All of which is to say that we plan to post occasional observations about price changes over time as a means of putting Abenomics — whose core strategy is to boost inflation — in perspective. First up: retort curry, meaning prepared curry topping in a pouch that is heated in a pan of boiling water. Except for noodles, it’s the most common instant meal in Japan and there are dozens of retort curry product lines. The volume of a single serving package is usually 200-210 grams, with higher end products topping out at ¥300 retail per piece. However, above the ¥100 price line, there really isn’t that much difference from one brand to another except maybe in terms of meat volume.

Below ¥100 is where the competition lies, and in that price range the most representative brand is House’s Kariya. Though the recommended retail price is ¥120, after the turn of the millennium Kariya usually retailed for about ¥98 in line with the “one coin” marketing strategy that said people tended to resist a product once its price floated above ¥100. Following deflationary patterns over the course of the decade, Kariya’s price actually dropped, first to ¥88 and then to ¥78, in discount and drug stores that specialized in bulk sales. The spread of such stores put pressure on regular supermarket chains to also reduce the price of Kariya, since it was so popular. Last weekend, we found it on sale at our local discount drug store for ¥68. That’s even cheaper than generic brands, which usually go for ¥296 for a set of four pouches. More significantly, the price of other brands of retort curry has also come down, and while none are as low as ¥68, more have drifted below the ¥100 line. This means a curry meal can actually cost less than two convenience store onigiri (¥200), the standard model for a cheap lunch, since a microwave package of prepared white rice is ¥80-¥90. Of course, non-instant curry, made from packaged roux, costs less per serving, but retort curry will likely become even more in demand with the projected increase in single-person households, and so we predict it will resist any inflationary pressure.

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 →

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