Japanese flock to supermarkets to beat the sales tax increase

In a picture taken on March 27, 2014, people shop in a department store in Tokyo. Japan is bracing for its first sales tax hike in years, but the move to help shrink a huge national debt has aggravated fears of a repeat of 1997, when raising the levy
In a picture taken on March 27, 2014, people shop in a department store in Tokyo. Japan is bracing for its first sales tax hike in years, but the move to help shrink a huge national debt has aggravated fears of a repeat of 1997, when raising the levy foreshadowed a tumble into deflation and tepid growth. -- PHOTO: AFP

OVER the past two months, I have accumulated at least half a year’s supply of daily necessities for two adults.

When the last of my purchases, ordered online, are delivered by the end of the week, my wife and I will have in abundance food items such as rice, Spam and canned tuna, and toiletries from hand wash, shampoo and conditioner to mouthwash.

Let’s not forget the household items: laundry powder, dish detergent and sundry goods such as toilet paper and tissue paper.

This is not panic buying before a disaster hits, but stocking up before the sales tax goes up from 5 per cent to 8 per cent on April 1.

Our purchases – and those of millions of Japanese – helped supermarkets achieve a 1.5 per cent rise in sales in February, and March will likely be a banner month for sales as well.

Supermarkets have been bending over backwards to accommodate buyers by putting more staff on duty to attend to last-minute crowds.

Some chains were still accepting online orders yesterday to help shoppers beat the deadline.

While the savings on small items are not as significant as those for big-ticket items such as cars and electrical appliances, they add up when the items are bought in bulk.

Retailers have also sweetened the deal by doing their own bulk purchases and passing on the savings by giving discounts on the goods.

Take rice, for instance.

At one supermarket, the popular koshihikari Japanese rice is being sold at less than 1,900 yen (S$23) per 5kg pack, or about 10 per cent cheaper than last year. The discounts ranged from 5 to 10 per cent for other brands of rice.

While comparisons have been made between this increase and the last one in 1997 – when Japan raised sales tax from 3 per cent to 5 per cent – a clear difference is the impact that the prevalence of online shopping has had on the big stock-up, with the convenience of home deliveries and free shipping as well.

Still, despite my best efforts, I realised I had forgotten to buy extra toothpaste.

But I need not have worried. A popular drugstore chain’s outlets stayed open until midnight, ample time for me to do a last pre-tax- increase run, and pick up some over-the-counter medicines at a 10 per cent discount too.

boonlai@sph.com.sg