Archive for the ‘News’ Category

McDonald’s smells the coffee: Limited expectations are here to stay

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Fill 'er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

Fill ‘er up: Customer using self-service coffee maker at 7-11.

If the central point of Abenomics is to boost prices and thus wages and consumption — the old “raise all boats” metaphor — then to a certain extent the plan has succeeded over the last year. Consumers don’t seem to be fixated on cheap goods and services any more, though, to be honest, it’s difficult to tell if this willingness to spend more is a function of anticipation for April’s consumption tax hike. But for the time being there seems to be that old desire for high quality stuff, regardless of how much it costs; which isn’t to say consumers aren’t looking for cheap things, only that they aren’t making it a priority any more.

This paradox seems to have had a bad effect on the fortunes of a company that some once thought was invincible: McDonald’s. Since August, the fast food behemoth’s Japanese operation has had to lower its sales projection for fiscal 2013 twice. Profits are expected to be around ¥5 billion, or a whopping ¥6.7 billion lower than originally thought. Sales have decreased five months in row, with the number of customers dropping for 7 consecutive months. The company is telling the media that the reason is “no hit product” this year, thus making it sound like a PR failure, but according to Asahi Shimbun, and almost every other Japanese media that has reported the story, McDonalds’ poor showing seems to be more systemic, an indication of a sea change in consumer sentiment.

The company’s response has been to bring in new blood. Sarah Casanova, a Canadian, was appointed president of McDonald’s Japan last summer, and, again, it seems to be more a matter of an image makeover. The announced new strategy is to target women as a demographic, since it is younger females who have tended to resist McD’s charms the most during its two straight years of falling revenues. The plan reinforces “healthy menu” items, which to a company like McDonald’s means offering more things with chicken in them.

Though it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually quite a turnaround. When the previous president, Eiko Harada, was appointed in 2004 his big move was pushing the so-called ¥100 Mac, the cheap hamburger that was always going to be McDonald’s mainstay, and it worked. For the next six years profits grew.

The next big coup was ¥100 coffee, which effectively challenged coffee shops and coffee chains like Starbucks. Then the company made over their restaurants with more attractive decor. These various gambits were predicated on boosting the brand, but actually it was the price and the speed of service that mattered to customers. People buy McDonald’s hamburgers not because of the taste or the atmosphere, but because they’re cheap, and the same went for the coffee, which was pretty good considering but not as good as Starbucks, for what it’s worth.

To make matters worse, McDonald’s raised prices in the past year, thinking that the economy justified the change, and in a way it did, but people don’t think that way about McDonald’s. They aren’t willing to pay more for fast food, no matter how well it’s presented or how nice the decor is.

In the era of Abenomics, that means any competition can eat into McDonald’s sales more easily. Just as McD stole customers away from Starbucks when it launched its ¥100 coffee, now convenience stores are taking business away from McD with their own cheap coffee. About a year ago 7-11 put self-service coffee machines, which grind beans and brew coffee while you wait, in 16,000 stores, and by September they had sold 200 million cups. It only costs ¥100, and other CS have followed suit, though Lawson’s coffee is a bit more expensive at ¥150.

The market has grown so much that the consumer report magazine Nikkei Trendy named convenience store coffee the #1 hitto shohin (hit merchandise) of the year. It should be noted that Japan is a formidable coffee market, number 4 in the world in terms of consumption — 50 percent more than green tea, in fact. Even sushi restaurants are now serving fresh coffee. More significantly, 7-11 reports that its new coffee service does not subtract from other in-store coffee-related sales, such as canned coffee or chilled pack coffees. It’s simply gravy.

But someone has to lose in this equation, and it seems to be McDonald’s, which has a lot to lose. After all, ¥260 billion, which is McD’s projected revenue this year, is still a great deal of money. The problem is that McD is associated with hamburgers, whose traction on the Japanese imagination has always been tentative. Older people don’t really eat them as much, and Japan, as everyone knows, is the fastest aging society in the world.

Also, the tendency to eat out is becoming weaker in Japan as the population ages. Restaurant sales have decreased by 20 percent since they peaked in 1997. The weekly magazine Gendai, in typical hyperbolic fashion, has predicted the end of McDonald’s in Japan after reporting that the company will have closed 160 outlets by the end of this fiscal year.

Where’s the beef? Japanese taste buds dictate processing methods

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Something to chew on: Packages of fat-injected processed beef in a supermarket

Thanks to the hotel restaurant menu scandal, even food retailers’ product descriptions have come under scrutiny. Internet mall Rakuten received the biggest black eye, though it appears to have been for a genuine mistake and not because of a planned deception. To celebrate its baseball team’s Japan Series victory, Rakuten held a bargain sale that marked some prices down as much as 77 percent, but in several cases the markdowns were carried out so sloppily that a whole digit was lost. For instance, an A5-grade, 550-gram “steak set” that normally sells for ¥18,400 was marked down to ¥1,000, which is a lot more than 77 percent.

The sale price was supposed to be ¥10,000, but somehow one of the zeroes didn’t make the transition. Rakuten received lots of complaints and had to apologize again (having already suffered the same mistake over boxes of cream puffs) and fork out refunds, but anyone who knows anything about Japanese beef prices should have realized that ¥1,000 for Tosa-bred wagyu (Japanese beef) had to be an error.

Increased scrutiny, in fact, has revealed that many indications for beef, whether sold in restaurants or in stores, while not being technically deceptive are less then forthcoming. Aera reports that one Hokkaido beef wholesaler has been cited for misrepresenting its wares, calling some of its items “beef” when it should be labeled “processed beef” (kako-niku).

The closer attention to wording was probably fallout from the menu scandal, in which Osaka’s Shin-Hankyu Hotel was found to be at fault for listing processed beef as “beef steak,” which it is not. The Kintetsu Hotel restaurant, awarded a star by Michelin, sells processed beef as wagyu steak for a whopping ¥6,300. Even Takashimaya department store’s “beef filets” were found to be processed. A steak or filet is a cut of meat that has not been changed in any way, but many meat sellers take cheaper cuts of beef and inject them with fat to give them the marbled effect that Japanese people prefer.

In the West, the adjective “lean,” which implies less fat, is considered a positive attribute for beef, but wagyu is characteristically streaked with fat, which means it has a richer flavor and is more tender. Generally speaking, the beef that Americans, Australians and Europeans eat is considered by Japanese to be tough and difficult to chew. Thanks to improvements in feed grains in the early 90s, American producers developed softer beef for the Japanese market, which is why so many fast food chains prefer using cheaper USA beef.

Most Australia beef sold in Japan has been processed, meaning that fat has been added. Some store cuts that look like steak may even have been “molded” (seikei). Different pieces of meat are “glued” together to make what looks like a steak and then injected with fat. A friend of ours who once had a job promoting “Aussie Beef” in Japan said the joke among his Australian colleagues was that “Japanese really don’t like the taste of beef,” since to Australians real beef is chewy and has no fat.

It should be noted that the reason beef is chewy is because the cattle is more muscular, in other words healthier than cattle that has more fat. Australian cattle are typically raised on the range where they eat grass, while in Japan and America the cows are penned up and fed grain (and lots of antibiotics to fight the infections that such a diet gives rise to). Also, range-raised beef is not as susceptible to BSE (mad cow disease).

Restaurants and retailers are required by law to indicate that their meat is processed, but the print tends to be tiny and obscure. This could cause problems, however, since ingredients used to process the fat can include dairy and soy products, which many people are allergic to. Parents of at-risk children know to look for the fine print, but restaurants are supposed to ask customers if they have any food allergies when people call on the phone for takeout. If the person says yes, then “real” beef will be substituted for the usual processed kind.

In stores, however, it’s quite easy to determine which meat is real and which is processed without having to squint. Just look at the price. According to Asahi Shimbun, one kilogram of unprocessed grade A3 (highest: A5) Japanese sirloin is at least ¥5,000 per kilogram, whereas one kilogram of processed sirloin is between ¥1,400 and ¥2,000. Seikei cuts of meat are only ¥700-¥800 per kg. What’s interesting is that while fat-injection has been a common practice since the early 1980s, it was always thought of mainly as an economic measure. The purpose was to make beef affordable on an everyday level, but the Asahi reports that many restaurants now say that their customers prefer the taste of cheaper processed beef to more expensive genuine cuts of beef, even when that genuine beef is sufficiently marbled.

Collecting organizations try to give credit where it’s due, don’t always succeed

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

In a recent series on credit information reporting, the Asahi Shimbun explained the plight of a young Kanto woman who had applied for a credit card last March. The card she was interested in offered discounts at selected stores and could be used as an IC card for public transportation. It also had an attractive point system. Almost all her work colleagues had the card and since her financial particulars were the same as theirs she didn’t think she’d be turned down, but she was and the rejection confused her. She had one other credit card, which she had always paid on time. When she called the credit company that refused her they said they couldn’t give her the reason for the rejection.

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

A gift campaign notice that comes with a monthly credit card statement

Then she received a letter from Softbank Mobile, her cell phone service carrier, which said that due to a mistake her payments had been reported to a credit information (CI) company as being delinquent. The period of her false delinquency, she realized, fell during the same time that she applied for the credit card. In the letter Softbank said that it had corrected the mistake with the CI company, and when she applied for the card again after a while, she was approved, but when she tried to find out why they had changed their mind the company again said they couldn’t tell her.

Such situations are not uncommon, but since credit card companies are not obliged to give reasons for rejecting or accepting customers, most applicants have no idea that these problems even exist until it’s too late.

In Softbank’s case, the carrier was actually alerted to the “mistake” last March when customers pointed it out to them. The company investigated the claim and found that between December 2012 and March 2013, about 63,000 customers were reported to credit information companies as having been late with their payments, even though they hadn’t been. The reason for the mistake was fairly complex, and common enough for such a reporting system. All of the affected customers, including the woman profiled by the Asahi, had purchased their terminal devices — meaning their cell phones — through a revolving credit plan. Moreover, they accumulated points over time that could be redeemed as credit through the revolving payment system.

Softbank reported all this information to the relevant CI collecting company, but because of a computer programming redesign that took place late last year the settings that translated points into credit did not work correctly, so people who had paid for their cell phones through points were incorrectly flagged as being delinquent as far back as 2009.

When a financial institution screens someone to determine if the person is credit-worthy, they use CI from various sources: the Credit Information Center (CIC), which mostly works with credit card companies and revolving payment plans; the Japan Credit Information Reference Center Corporation (JICC), whose members are consumer loan outfits; and the Japanese Bankers Association, which collects information related to bank loans. When someone applies for a credit card or a loan the institution requests credit history information from the relevant organization. All lenders and retailers who offer revolving payment plans are obliged by law to report credit histories of customers to one of these CI organizations.

CI includes personal data, such as name, address, birthdate and nature of the transaction; as well as “payment information,” including payment trends and the balance of the account. As long as the customer pays on time, no information is recorded, but when the customer misses a payment the CI collecting company receives a notice of there being an “unpaid situation.” If that situation continues for 3 months straight, the payment situation is reported as being “irregular,” which means the customer is placed on a blacklist.

Being on a blacklist does not necessarily mean that the person will lose his or her credit card or be denied a loan. The financial institutions who request this information for screening purposes can interpret it however they want, but generally if an irregularity is persistent the person’s credit history will be tarnished. Information about irregularities stay in the customer’s credit history for five years, even if the loan or credit bill has been paid off. However, if the irregularity is the result of a mistake on the part of either the company reporting the credit information or the company collecting it, then it is immediately removed from the record.

The problem is that often such mistakes don’t come to light, and while credit reporting companies and lending institutions or credit card companies are not obligated to reveal reasons for rejections to applicants, the credit collection companies are. For instance, if you have a question about your credit card history you can call CIC and, for a fee (¥500-¥1,000), they will give it to you. It’s the same for the other two organizations, depending on where you have borrowed money. An expert in the Asahi article recommends that anyone planning to take out a large loan check beforehand with CI collecting organizations to find out whether or not there may be problems.

The Asahi also reports that an increasing number of young people are showing up on blacklists due to their phone bills. CI, it should be noted, has nothing to do with paying utility bills, a matter that is strictly between the utility and the customer. In the case of cell phones, CI is only reported on people who have bought their phones through revolving payment systems, which are usually attached to phone bills.

The problem here is that many young people forget that they are paying back money loaned to them for their phones. They think that they are paying their phone bill, so if they’re late with a payment they simply have to pay a small penalty. They don’t realize that their credit history is being damaged in the process. In many cases, in fact, it is their parents’ credit history that’s being damaged, since some parents cosign for their kids’s cell phones. It gives them more reason to monitor their cell phone usage.

Net scalpers set off discussion of true fandom in terms of economics

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Can’t buy me love: What does Sir Paul think about the ticket prices to his Japan concerts? (photo MPL Communications Ltd.)

Several Japanese media have commented recently on how expensive tickets are on various Internet auction sites for the upcoming Paul McCartney shows. Sir Paul’s six-show Japan tour, including three Tokyo Dome concerts, slated for the middle of November sold out almost immediately after they went on sale in September. The highest face price for a ticket is ¥16,500, but tickets on the Yahoo auction site are going for as high as ¥400,000. What’s especially unnerving to some people is that these high prices have not been arrived at through the usual bidding process. The seller is simply setting a very high price and people are paying it.

This realization has led to calls for regulation of ticket prices on auction sites. According to one journalist writing in the Asahi Shimbun, who also happens to be a big McCartney fan (he didn’t get picked in the initial ticket lottery), if Net auctions are not regulated then only rich people will be able to buy tickets to the most popular concerts, thus squeezing out “true fans” of the artists who are performing. The journalist says that it’s obvious these expensive net tickets are being sold by dafuya (scalpers).

Many local governments have laws that limit the activities of scalpers who hang around venues selling secondhand tickets, though these are usually associated with public nuisance regulations (meiwaku jorei). The journalist says there should be laws limiting what scalpers can charge on the Internet. He also points out that scalping runs counter to the purposes of selling tickets over the net, a service he says was designed for people who bought tickets legitimately but for some reason can’t attend the show and need to find someone else who will buy the tickets. It is not for the purpose of making a profit.

Some promoters have come out in favor of cracking down on net scalpers. Rockin’ On, the magazine that sponsors and puts on Rock In Japan, the country’s biggest summer music festival, says that net auctions have become a problem for them, since the festival sells out fairly quickly and the audience is typically young, meaning they don’t have the money to pay the kind of prices net scalpers demand. Like the journalist, Rockin’ On’s president, veteran music critic Yoichi Shibuya, told Asahi that tickets for the festival should go to “people who really want to go” but end up in the hands of people “who can be called scalpers.” Shibuya says that Yahoo is shirking its responsibility by inadvertently helping scalpers fleece young music lovers.

However, a professor of economics at prestigious Waseda University told the paper that complaints about net scalpers ignore one vital component, namely, the market. Who is to say that the person who shells out 400,000 yen for a ticket to the McCartney show is any less a fan of the ex-Beatle than someone who claims to be but can’t afford that price? If the scalpers can get that much money for a single ticket, it means that the face prices of the tickets were too low to begin with.

In essence, tickets that are sold on the net will fetch their “natural” market price, whereas prices set by the promoters and venues can be artificially low, depending on the artist. What the professor seems to be saying is that net prices measure a true fan’s desire: even if the price of the ticket is higher than you can reasonably pay, if you really want to see that show, you’ll pay it. The real problem, he says, is that if tickets were actually sold this way, it would reflect badly on the artist, especially rock artists who tend to have the image of being heroes for the average person.

Say goodbye to plentiful, affordable shrimp

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Last week the national fast food chain Tenya, which specializes in tempura dishes, announced that it was discontinuing two of its most popular menu items effective Oct. 20: jotendon (¥580) and ebiten soba or udon (¥790). Both dishes feature prawns deep fried in batter — the former offers two big prawns on top of a bowl of rice, and the latter one big prawn in a bowl of either soba or udon noodles. The reason for the move is the skyrocketing price of shrimp. As a concession, Tenya will continue serving tendon (¥500), which only features one fried prawn on a bowl of rice, and introduce ebi oika tendon (¥590) — one prawn and one slab of squid on rice.

Tenya’s parent company, Royal Holdings, said in a statement that the Southeast Asian shrimp farms from which it buys its prawns have been hit with a disease called early mortality syndrome (EMS) that has decimated stocks, the result being that prices have doubled. The EMS plague affects shrimp prices all over the world, especially in the U.S., which consumes more shrimp than any other country. Since most shrimp farms are, almost by definition, ecologically destructive, the spread of disease is hardly surprising, and it isn’t certain if the industry will be able to recover.

That’s a serious problem for Japan, where shrimp, or ebi, has a special place in the national cuisine. Before the 1980s, tendon using prawns was considered an extravagant dish for the average Japanese person, and it remains one of the most popular meals to this day, beloved by all classes of people. Tendon is by far the most popular item on Tenya’s menu, with the now discontinued jotendon in fourth place, according to a recent report on TV Asahi. Moreover, the kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) chain Sushiro has also announced that it will be suspending sales of many dishes that use shrimp due to the “worldwide shortage.” Family restaurants and convenience stores will also cut back on the number of products they sell that feature ebi.

The shortage has given rise to rumors that some Japanese restaurants and food makers have been using crayfish (zarigani) as a substitute for shrimp without telling customers. There are sushi restaurants in the U.S. that serve crayfish openly, but most Japanese people find the fresh water crustacean unappetizing. The American species of crayfish was brought to Japan by the U.S. military during the postwar occupation as a protein supplement, and now can be commonly found in rivers and streams. Japanese tend to be streotyped as able to eat almost anything but they’ve never taken to crayfish, which in the U.S. is normally eaten in the South.

It’s the kind of rumor that some restaurants would take seriously. Coincidentally or not, the Hankyu Hanshin Hotel group recently announced that it would provide refunds to anyone who purchased any of 47 dishes in its restaurants between 2006 and February of this year.

Apparently, the ingredients in these dishes weren’t as expensive as the restaurants claimed they were. Among the mislabeled dishes was shiba ebi, a high quality breed of domestic shrimp that costs ¥2,500 per kg wholesale. The restaurants were actually using a much cheaper breed, which only costs ¥1,400 per kg. The hotel group calculates that 78,775 people purchased these dishes during the time period cited. It has put aside ¥110 million for refunds, which begs the question: Do all those people still have their receipts?

Blood on the tracks: Who pays for deadly railway accidents?

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Don't look now

Don’t look now

One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.

The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.

In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.

At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.

Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.

In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.

But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.

For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.

Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.

Young women’s life preferences acknowledge workplace reality

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Preference or default?

Preference or default?

Social media has been buzzing about the results of a survey released this week by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey was carried out last March among men and women, both single and married, between the ages of 15 and 39. The results that provoked the most discussion had to do with attitudes toward marriage, or, more precisely, a woman’s role in a marriage.

When asked if they want to be full-time homemakers, 34.2 percent of the female respondents said “yes” or “probably.” And while more women, 38.5 percent to be exact, said they didn’t want to be homemakers, the portion who said they did was apparently higher than people expected, especially now that the government is pushing an agenda to make it easier for women to join the workforce and contribute more directly to the economy.

Some people are saying that these results indicate a regressive attitude among women, but it’s impossible to say from the results that the women who want to be homemakers are being guided by some kind of cultural gender identification.

When men were asked in the survey if they wanted their wives to be homemakers, 19.3 percent said “yes” or “probably,” which implies that the other four-fifths want their wives to work. That’s because they know that a single income isn’t enough any more to support a household, especially one that does or will someday include children.

When the women were asked how much income they thought their husbands should make a month, 40.8 percent said ¥200,000-¥300,000, 24.8 percent said ¥300,000-¥400,000 and a mere 4.2 percent said “it doesn’t matter.” So much for marrying for love.

A more likely reason for this desire to stay at home is a perceived understanding of workplace norms, something the labor ministry didn’t ask about. In a different survey conducted by the Japan Management Association, young men (751) and women (249) already in the workforce were asked if they aspired to be leaders among their colleagues. Of the female respondents, 81 percent said they would rather be “supportive.”

One of the more pressing issues in Japan is the paucity of women managers, a situation that is blamed on implacable male dominance in the workplace. The association analyzes this result as meaning that women value their private lives over their careers. In other words, they don’t think they can raise children or have families if they are in leadership positions. And, in fact, this is still a widely held belief.

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