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Last Sunday morning, at a large suburban restaurant, the Slow Food movement oozed its languid charms on the local breakfast crowd. Unhurried table service. A 22-minute wait for pancakes. A primeval pang of appreciation when they did turn up.
Delightful but part of the scene in Genoa or Santorini; unexpected at a bustling McDonald’s just outside Yokohama.
The slowness was unintentional and apologetic, and the point is not complaint, but discrepancy. The restaurant was realistically busy with customers but unrealistically light on staff. You could tell how light not just from the unfamiliarly long wait under the golden arches, but from the prominent sign by the counter declaring the workforce shortfall for each shift and pleading for prospective employees to fill the gaps.
The problem, as Japan cannot yet quite admit to itself, is that the necessary staff probably won’t come and the interim solution — a tactic that might best be thought of as “service shrinkflation” — cannot fool customers forever.
Japan’s simultaneous superpower and kryptonite has, for many years, been quality of service, particularly in food and retail. Over time and through intensity of competition, the standard here has raised customer expectations of cleanliness, punctuality, efficiency, knowledgeability and attention to detail to world-beatingly outrageous heights. It has, though, made the missing of those standards a more noticeable failing than elsewhere.
Even global brands such as McDonald’s which seek to replicate a particular dining experience across the globe know they have to raise their game in Japan — and have historically done so.
The variable these days is Japan’s chronic labour shortage — a slow-burning crisis of demographics and hesitancy about immigration which, as examples highlight almost daily, is making its mark across the economy. Last week, in a Kyodo survey of 114 of Japan’s largest companies, 49 per cent said they were short of staff. Tokyo Shoko Research, meanwhile, reported that in the first six months of this year, bankruptcies directly caused by staff shortages were 2.5 times higher than the same period in 2022.
Versions of the crisis are everywhere — some are unsettling. In a country where most of the land mass is hills and valleys, members of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers worry about the huge national shortfall of expertise in bridges and tunnels.
But for now, at least, large parts of consumer-facing Japan are entering a complex charade that seems to draw inspiration from another bit of corporate gamesmanship. After many years of deflation and loss of pricing power, Japanese food companies became absolute masters in the dark arts of “shrinkflation” — reducing the quantity of product while maintaining familiar sizes of packaging. Japan was hardly alone in this practice, but squeamishness around raising prices meant it became a more entrenched habit than elsewhere.
Grumpy Japanese websites track in great detail the ways, measurements and timeframe in which shrinkflation has reduced the length of beloved ice lollies, the number of processed cheese slices in a pack or the number of Melty Kiss chocolates in a sachet. A favourite joke centres on Fujiya’s popular Country Ma’am chocolate chip cookies and the forecast that, under its current rates of shrinkflation, each one will be smaller than a Y1 coin by 2040.
The shrinkflation deception uses visual consistency in the packaging to anchor expectations while delivering less. It also postpones for as long as possible a fundamental change of relationship with customers.
Japan’s services sector — the amazing 24-hour convenience stores and restaurants, the expertly staffed shops, the ubiquitous vending machines, the insanely regular trains and so on — looks very much as if it will have to play both parts of that shrinkflation game. Where companies in other countries may shrug and deliver a worse service as circumstances dictate, Japanese businesses are prisoners of their historic refusal to do that.
As far as possible, the outward packaging will stay the same, but the experience Japan has spent so long perfecting and promising will diminish in small increments — shorter opening hours, longer queues, slower fast food, fewer trains, more self-service checkouts. Eventually, a point is reached when it cannot be disguised.
When the product shrinkflation charade can no longer deceive, food companies hit customers with higher prices. When services shrinkflation stops working in Japan, a much broader set of expectations must be reset in a society that has been spoilt by excellence.