Archive for the ‘Retail’ Category

Postal employees carry extra burden during the holiday season

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Until around 2000, the custom of sending nengajo, or New Years greetings, to friends, family and business associates was widespread in Japan, but since then it has become less so. According to Japan Post, mail carriers delivered 3.7 billion New Years cards in 1999. That number dropped to 2.6 billion in 2012. More significantly for JP, which is in the process of being privatized, the organization sold 4.2 billion cards in 1999 and 3.3 billion in 2012.

Hard sell: New Years postcard display in Kyobashi post office

Hard sell: New Years postcard display in Kyobashi post office

The 22 percent drop in sales shows how much business JP has lost over the last 13 years, since nengajo account for 10 percent of JP’s total postal-related business. In fact, JP depends on sales of New Years cards to make up for the loss in other areas. But look at that other statistic, the one showing how many cards were actually sold, and a question has to arise in your mind: Why is there such a huge gap between the number of nengajo sold and the number delivered? What happened to the 700 million cards that were sold but not delivered in 2012?

It’s a question Asahi Shimbun attempted to answer in a recent article about the practice known as jibaku eigyo (suicide bomber sales), which many employees of Japan Post resort to at this time of year. One of the reasons sales of New Years postcards (nenga-hagaki) is so high is that almost all employees of the postal service sell them. They have quotas, and while there are no written stipulations that require employees to meet their numbers, it’s tacitly understood that their future in the company is jeopardized if they don’t.

Many employees sell cards they can’t otherwise sell to kinken resellers, those storefront operations that buy things like railway tickets and store coupons and then resell them at prices slightly below their face value.

For years postal employees have dumped their remaining postcards at kinken shops rather than return them to their supervisors. And since they receive less than the ¥50 face value for each card, the employees lose money, because they don’t earn commissions from the cards. They have to return to JP ¥50 for each card they sell.

JP frowns on the practice, not because it’s illegal, but because it looks bad, especially since JP plans to become a listed company sometime in the near future. A public relations person told the Asahi that the company is “aware” that many employees sell their unsold postcards to resellers, as well as through Internet auction sites, and have deemed such practices “improper.”

This year they plan to crack down on these practices, which shouldn’t be too hard. Every nenga-hagaki has a lottery number printed on it. After New Years JP conducts a drawing and people who have received postcards with winning numbers can redeem them for prizes (a custom that will be covered in a future Yen for Living post). All a supervisor has to do is record the lot numbers of the postcards he or she assigns to an employee. If any of those cards end up in kinken shops, JP will know who sold them.

Some employees end up spending even more money trying to confound this countermeasure. Asahi talked to one non-regular mail carrier from Central Japan who traveled all the way to Tokyo with more than 3,000 cards to sell them to a kinken shop in the capital, because he thinks the chances of him getting caught will be less. Also, kinken shops in Tokyo pay more for nenga-hagaki than shops in the Chubu region. Still, even after he sells them he stands to lose ¥40,000 on the deal, and that doesn’t even count the cost of his train ticket. A Nagasaki-based employee sent 4,000 cards via express package delivery to a kinken shop in Hokkaido, thinking it was far enough away to be safe.

The size of the quota depends on the job description of the worker: Quotas are higher for regular employees than they are for non-regular and part-time employees, but since non-regular salaries are so much lower than those of regulars, the burden may be greater. Since they are employed on a semi-annual contract basis, many non-regulars believe that their contracts won’t be renewed if they fail to meet their quotas.

Supervisors have higher quotas than their subordinates, but supervisors are usually older employees who already have a solid base of established customers, which are mostly friends and relatives anyway. Also, supervisors have time to carry out sales activities in front of their offices or in public places during normal work hours. Mail carriers are always making deliveries, so they have to sell their cards on their own time. Some quotas seem ridiculously difficult to fulfill.

According to an internal document that Asahi got ahold of, each regular mail carrier in Saitama City is required to sell 7,000 cards a season, which starts on Nov. 1 with a media blitz. The section chief in a Western Japan branch has to sell 13,500. For non-regulars, the burden is anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 cards, usually depending on their respective branches’ sales figures in the past. Employees told Asahi of how they were browbeaten by supervisors to sell more cards, with one saying that he was accused by his boss of “robbing JP” because he hadn’t sold enough. Japan Post has said that employees should report supervisors who exert “unfair pressure” on them to sell cards, but it seems no one has done so.

Some quit, while many others simply dump the unsold cards in their closets and absorb the loss, which is why the holidays are anything but happy for postal employees. In any case, nobody the Asahi talked to said they sold all of their cards. When the reporter asked an officer of one of the labor unions that represent postal workers if the union isn’t doing anything to counteract the quota system, he replied somewhat bizarrely that JP has to maintain sales in order to survive.

Though sales quotas have always been part of postal employees’ jobs, they used to be fairly low and manageable. But since JP’s privatization bid the quotas have skyrocketed, mainly because people aren’t sending as many cards as they used to.

In a survey conducted by Internet news service J-cast, only 58 percent of respondents said they planned to send out nengajo this year, with 19 percent saying they would send more than a hundred cards, 22 percent sending out 50-100 cards, and 36 percent sending out less than 50. Twenty percent said they had no plans to send cards at all this year.

Supermarkets finally get serious about shopping bags

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

A few weeks ago we were waiting at a checkout counter in an Aeon supermarket and placed in the basket one of those laminated cards that say you don’t need a shopping bag. When our turn came the cashier gave us a funny look and asked us if we really needed a bag for one item. We then read the card, which said that you should put it in your basket if you want a shopping bag.

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

Card saying bags cost ¥2 each

We made a false assumption because we don’t usually shop at Aeon. The supermarket we normally patronize asks you to indicate if you don’t want a bag, and they’ll knock ¥2 off the total if you do. Apparently, that practice is now giving way to the opposite tactic: You have to tell the cashier if you want a bag, in which case they will charge you for it.

Aeon, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, started this practice way back in 2007, and as of Nov. 1 every outlet follows the policy, which is ¥5 for an extra large bag and ¥3 for a large bag. Even Aeon’s discount food chain, MaxValu, has adopted the charge-for-bags policy. For that matter, so has every other major supermarket chain. Ito Yokado charges ¥2 per bag, Uny ¥5, Seiyu ¥2 for a medium and ¥3 for a large, and Daiei ¥3 to ¥5, depending on the size.

According to Sankei Shimbun, Aeon donates all the money it collects for bags to various environmental causes, while Uny donates half the money it collects. Saving the environment is what bag reduction is all about, though the government stresses it from a different angle than you might think. A study sponsored by the Environmental Ministry looked at the shopping bag problem in terms of resources. One bag requires 18.3 ml of oil and Japan uses 30.5 billion shopping bags a year, which is the equivalent of more than 600,000 kiloliters of oil.

The study also calculates that 967 shopping bags are given away every second in Japan, or the equivalent of 8.82 two-liter PET bottles of oil. The study says that shopping bags waste precious resources, which is of course a relevant situation in resource-starved Japan, though in most other countries the plastic bag problem is associated with pollution.

The main reason bags aren’t considered a waste problem in Japan is that they are routinely incinerated here. In America plastics generally are not burned, which is why the campaign against shopping bags is older, since most end up as landfill. Then again, more European countries are starting to burn plastic refuse, but they are also more strict about shopping bags. In Ireland, for example, a shopping bag will cost you ¥15, which is why there are almost none in Ireland any more.

Card saying no bags and it's ¥2 off your purchase

Card saying no bags and it’s ¥2 off your purchase

Refuse officials in Japan say there is no problem with burning plastic. Dioxin emissions are almost non-existent because Japanese incinerators use very high temperatures, an assertion some environmentalists are skeptical of. But in any case, people still use shopping bags and plastic bags mandated by local governments to dispose of household waste, and the real problem with incineration isn’t plastic but organic waste and kitchen scraps, which tend to be wet and thus require a lot more heat to burn up.

So while the bags themselves may not be a problem, what they contain is. San Francisco realized this and went beyond limiting plastic bags, requiring residents to dispose of organic waste in composting boxes, and it’s been a success.

So while every reduction helps, environmentalists belief that only limiting shopping bag usage isn’t enough. One person on the Internet (scroll down to commenter qqme9839) calculated that in 2009 burning garbage accounted for only 3 percent of all CO2 emissions. And since plastic constituted 45 percent of the garbage being burned, it created only 1.35 percent of the CO2 that was emitted that year. And since production of shopping bags in 2009 accounted for 0.55 percent of all discarded plastic by weight, that means plastic bags’ contribution to CO2 was 0.075 percent. Reducing people’s reliance on shopping bags is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing.

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.

Government wondering how to tap burgeoning ebook market

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

No waiting

No waiting

It’s official. The consumption tax goes up to 8 percent in April, and the government is anxious to plug any loopholes. The most bothersome one is for ebooks. Though domestically sold ebooks, meaning those distributed by Japanese vendors from physical addresses in Japan, are already taxed, those sold from overseas are not, and the tax bureau is wondering how to correct this problem, especially now that the price gap between an ebook purchased from a foreign-based agent and one purchased from a Japan-based seller will widen, thus setting up a disadvantage for the latter. Market research company Daiwa Soken reports that in 2012 the government missed out on ¥24.7 billion worth of tax revenues from the purchase of ebooks from abroad.

Legally, sales transactions that occur outside of Japan are not subject to consumption tax, and the place of the transaction is determined by the address of the seller. So if you go to Amazon.co.jp and look at various books, you’ll notice that those which are sold by Amazon Japan have consumption tax included in the price, while ebooks sold by Amazon Services International do not. What the government wants to do is change the law so that the place of the sales transaction is not the place of sale but rather the place of usage, a tactic that some American local governments have tried with regard to sales tax. But sales taxes are paid at the retail stage, while consumption taxes are incurred at every step of distribution, so a Japanese importer adds the tax after the item arrives in Japan.

If a customer in Japan buys the book directly from overseas, no tax is imposed, but when the law is changed customs could add it because the imposition location is the user’s address, not the seller’s. However, since ebooks, as well as music tracks and software, tend to be purchased over the net it’s more difficult to monitor, if not downright impossible.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, the Finance Ministry’s plan is to strike deals with tax agencies abroad so that the consumption tax is added on when sales are made. Overseas sales companies who do business in Japan would have to register with the Japanese tax bureau. For large-scale companies with widespread presence in Japan and sales units overseas, like Amazon and Rakuten, which in 2011 bought the Canadian ebook seller Kobo, that shouldn’t be a problem, but there are dozens if not hundreds of smaller content vendors who will fall through the cracks.

Already, some Japanese language ebook sellers and other net vendors have set up operations overseas to exploit this loophole, thus causing concern for domestic companies like Yahoo Japan, whose president compared such competition to a boxing match in which Japanese companies “have to fight opponents who are three weight classes above them.” Eight percent can make a big difference, especially since Japanese ebooks tend to be priced high anyway compared to ebooks in other countries.

In that regard, buyers of non-Japanese language books have an even greater advantage in Japan, since Japanese publishers still enjoy government-sanctioned fixed prices for all first-sale books and magazines, regardless of when they were printed. Japanese bookstores cannot set their own prices and industry distribution rules discourage remainders. With the rising popularity of ebooks in the West — 20 percent of all books now sold in the U.S. are electronic as opposed to 8 percent in Japan — print books have actually benefited since people can seek out remainders and used books through Internet sales agents, and usually they purchase them for less money than an ebook, even with shipping included. That’s not the case in Japan, except for used books. But if Japanese ebook sellers set up agencies abroad they can corner the market.

Lower egg prices bad for producers, worse for chickens

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Which came first?

Which came first?

Over the summer the retail price of eggs has increased anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is a significant change for consumers but also for people who are pushing Abenomics and its focus on reigniting inflation, since eggs have for years been seemingly been impervious to price changes. At the beginning of May, it cost about the same to buy a package of 10 eggs as it cost to buy a package of ten eggs thirty years ago. As the prime buka no yutosei (best “student” among product prices), it’s one of those constants people took for granted.

However, the sudden increase was not entirely due to serendipity or natural market forces. In fact, the price hike was engineered in a bid to maintain market stability. In 2011 the agriculture ministry implemented a subsidy to control the price of eggs. Because a sudden drop in price can have an immediate harmful effect on egg producers’ bottom lines and potentially damage the industry as a whole, the ministry automatically provides funds when the wholesale price goes below ¥159 per kilogram. These funds are used to cull egg-laying chickens in order to reduce supply and put pressure on demand, thus pushing the price back up.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, in May the price dropped below the designated line and the subsidy kicked in. Producers receive ¥150-¥200 for every chicken they kill, and the ministry estimates that from mid-May until mid-July, when the subsidy was available, about 5 million birds were culled. Not all were thrown away. Many were processed and sold as meat, for which the producers can earn an additional ¥20-¥50 per bird, an aspect that makes the system even more popular among producers since it rationalizes the process of replacing chickens.

Usually, a hen becomes productive — meaning it starts laying eggs — 150 days after birth, and remains productive for about 500 days. The dropping off point for production can vary greatly from one bird to the next, so whenever the subsidy is in effect egg producers get rid of those older chickens that are borderline productive since it is monetarily advantageous to do so under the system. Egg production is a relatively easy farming method since it is all about volume. In the past ten years the average number of chickens kept by each producer has increased from about 33,000 to more than 50,000, thus indicating the loss of small-scale farmers and the dominance of corporate egg producers.

Of course, when it’s all about volume it’s also all about controlling inventory, which is bad for chickens. Besides the horrendous factory conditions that egg-laying hens have to endure, their fate is also subject to capricious market forces, not to mention natural ones.

This summer was one of the hottest on record, and a lot of chickens died from heat stroke, so even after the subsidy system was lifted in July, the number of producing hens continued to decrease, sending the price of eggs to its highest levels ever. Moreover, one condition for receiving subsidies is that the producer not replace culled chickens for at least 60 days. According to JA, its Zenno Tamago brand, often used as the index for egg prices, was up by as much as ¥55 per kg on Sept. 27 compared to the same date in 2012. (For reference one LL-size egg is 70-76 grams, and one kg now costs about ¥225.) But chickens grow fast, so the price is expected to drop to its normal level by December’s Christmas cake season.

Hot biz: stocks that climb with the temperature

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

You can never have too few air conditioners

You can never have too few air conditioners.

The extremely hot weather that has covered Japan since late July has had a multiplying effect on the country’s economy. Though it isn’t going to solve all the government’s fiscal problems, the heat has temporarily revitalized some retail and service sectors and, in turn, driven up related stock prices.

Some are obvious. Makers of air conditioners, particularly Fujitsu General and Daikin, have seen their share prices rise markedly in recent weeks. Meiji Holdings’ stock has increased by 20 percent since the middle of June thanks mainly to their ice cream division. Other makers of cold treats, like Ezaki Glico and Morinaga, are also enjoying high stock prices. Beverage makers can always look forward to good sales in summer, but this year in particular breweries are having their best season in 2 years. Shares for convenience stores have also risen steadily since the middle of July, based on strong retail sales as a result of the hot weather.

Another sector that’s benefited is Internet retailers. Yumenomachi Sozo Iinkai, a web supermarket, posted record high stock prices on Aug. 8 because of its special delivery system. People just don’t want to go outside in this heat, so they even order their groceries online and have them delivered. The nation’s biggest supermarket chain, Aeon, has said in terms of volume, deliveries have increased by 50 percent since the hot weather started. Even Tsutaya, Japan’s main rental video service, has seen its deliveries of DVDs double over last year’s.

Tokyo Shimbun reports that department stores, which deliver goods but count more on customers actually showing up at their stores, have initiated special events to get bodies out of the house and into their air-conditioned spaces. Shinjuku’s Takashimaya, for instance, has an unusual policy. The first 40 patrons who visit the food fair in the store’s basement between 2 and 5 p.m. on days where the temperature hits 35 degrees get free watermelon or a free extra scoop of gelato if they buy a single scoop.

A representative of a securities company told Asahi Shimbun that another reason for the sudden jump in stock prices was the Upper House election, which essentially pushed economic news aside. Investors had little information with which to make decisions, so when the hot weather became a topic they immediately went to companies that they thought would benefit.

Build a multifunction restroom and they will come

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Room to move

Room to move

The big question for retailers and restaurants in Japan is how to attract seniors, regardless of what it is you sell or serve. One nonprofit Tokyo organization called Check is advising businesses to install so-called multifunction restrooms on their premises and then advertise the fact. Multifunction restrooms are larger than standard public restrooms and can accommodate wheelchairs, and the NPO’s research has found that older people are more likely to patronize a business that has one.

According to a study reported in Tokyo Shimbun, the average family with at least one senior spends four hours and ¥10,000 when they go out shopping, but 20 percent also say they will likely stay out longer and spend more money if they know beforehand the location of multifunction restrooms. The study group extrapolated on its findings and speculated that in terms of time the family would stay out 30 to 120 minutes longer, and spend ¥606 more.

Check, which was founded in 2008, has made a list of some 50,000 multi-function rest rooms throughout Japan, which it provides on its website. The NPO thinks there are about 100,000, and it is providing this information to local governments so that they can use it to promote their areas to local seniors and older tourists.

However, it should be noted that toilets in general are becoming something of a sales promotional tool. The Tokyo Metro subway system actually has TV commercials aimed at women showing how modern and clean their public rest rooms are. Lawson was the first convenience store to declare that its restrooms could be used by the public without the obligation of buying something, since people were so grateful for the service they usually bought something anyway. Most convenience stores have followed suit. And many restaurants explain their rest room facilities on their home pages and Tabelog sites, since many women won’t patronize restaurants that don’t provide separate facilities for men and women.

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