The average household is seeing tighter food budgets thanks to worldwide rise in the prices of basic commodities. And while these price rises will curb deflation, they won’t have much of an effect on the downward pressure that deflation has put on wages. So while food prices will go up, your paycheck will remain the same.
Still, supermarkets and other food retailers will likely try to keep their prices as low as possible for competitive purposes. And since everyone is doing that, marketing chiefs have to come up with ways to get you into their stores in the first place. Traditionally, supermarkets put on shows: They buy a huge, expensive tuna and have some knife expert come in and slice it up in a grand, flamboyant way. The housewives love it, and while they’re there they buy other stuff. With penny-pinching in vogue like never before, loss-leader type events are more attractive. Loss leaders are products or product lines that are sold below cost mainly for promotional purposes. The style of promotion that’s become most prominent in recent years at food stores is tsume-hodai.
Tsumeru means “to stuff,” and hodai means “as much as you want.” In tsume-hodai sales, the retailer offers selected wares, usually produce, in bulk. Customers stuff bags provided by the retailer with as much of a given product as they can fit into them and then pay a set low price for each filled bag. Some years ago when the idea was first launched, it was usually only low-priced vegetables that were offered, like potatoes or onions. Eventually, vegetables were joined by fruit, then fish, and even sometimes meat. Last weekend we saw a tsume-hodai table set up on the street outside a discount supermarket offering pastries and other baked goods. Given the enthusiasm with which the housewives were stuffing the pastries into their plastic bags we assumed by the time they got home they would be filled with sweet, doughy mush.
Some supermarkets have actually become famous for their regular tsume-hodai fairs, which typically attract evening news crews who like nothing better than the spectacle of middle-aged women pushing and shoving and cramming. The fad’s apex, however, is represented by outlets of the convenience store chain Lawson that feature Kobe Hotto Deli, a buffet of prepared food. Instead of throwing unsold food away, KHD offers its own brand of tsume hodai: You take a tray of cooked rice and top it with as many dishes as possible for the uniform price of ¥390, which is usually what a dish would cost individually. The only condition is that the lid has to fit snugly over it. No leaning towers of fried prawns.