Friday, March 02, 2007


While the FBC (Foreign Buyer's Club) has been mentioned in my posts many times in the past, I haven't really explained exactly what it is and what you can get out of it. Part of the reasons is that I don't want to be seen as advocating it (though there's no reason not to do so) and part of it is that we've been a part of it for so long that I take it for granted everyone knows what it is and how it works.

The FBC started in 1987 and my husband and I joined it around 1989. Around that time, it was mainly selling foreign food of the sort you would never find in Japanese markets, even in the import sections. Initially, you could only buy food by the case so you had to be sure that you bought something that you liked and either lasted a long time or could be consumed rapidly. Now, some items can be purchased as single items rather than by the case but they are more expensive on a per item basis. My guess is that cases of popular items can be broken up at FBC's warehouse and parceled out to various customers but less popular items need to be sold as whole cases so the remainder won't be sitting around until they expire.

The FBC has diversified and expanded their repertoire of items over the years. Most people who have heard about it are familiar mainly with their "General Store". This carries the largest amount of items but orders from it take 4-6 weeks to arrive. There's also a "Deli" that carries a lot of fresh and frozen food as well as some of the items that are usually sold through the General Store. Items from the Deli ship in about a week. There's also a "Learning Center" which ships quickly as well and carries books, magazines, and learning materials for kids. People who work as English teachers for children might find it an interesting resource. There's also a "Brit Shop" which carries a selection of British items but I've never used it.

The "club" part of the FBC involves paying a membership fee of 1000 yen a year to join. This fee gets you 3 printed catalogs a year, intermittent flyers about holiday sales (like the Easter one shown above - click the picture to see a legibly large version), and a membership number to allow your orders to be tracked and processed more easily. The membership fee is clearly designed to cover the cost of printing and shipping catalogs and flyers and not as a cash cow for the FBC. If you don't want to join, you don't have to. You can still buy from them and pay a 5% handling fee on your order(s).

My husband and I don't tend to use the printed catalogs much as it's better to use their on-line database or download their frequently updated downloadable catalogs (Excel files). Since many items seem to come and go, using the on-line resources reduces the chance that you'll order something and find out it's unavailable and need a substitute.

The main benefit of the FBC for foreigners is two-fold. You can get things you can't get here like large quantities of various artificial sweeteners or numerous varieties of breakfast cereals. It's an especially good resource if you are interested in health and diet food items in particular. The second main benefit is that you also can get a great many items much more cheaply through the FBC than you can pick them up in Japanese stores.

Since my husband and I have a long track record dealing with FBC, I can say that our experiences have always been pretty good though not always perfect. We mainly buy food items but also bought a region-free DVD player and a crock pot from them. If items are damaged or arrive in an inedible state, they will always either refund your money or replace the items (your choice). If orders are delayed because of a bureaucratic problem, they have been known to send free gift items to apologize (usually an item from the order you're waiting overly long to receive) though such delays are very infrequent.

The only problem we've had with the FBC is that e-mail orders seem to land in their spam filters and be lost. It could be we were just triggering something and this is an atypical situation or that their filters are set to scrutinize too intensely and not tweaked very frequently. We call to check on the status of any e-mailed order every time now.

There have also been some annoyances which are beyond the FBC's control which I'll mention because they are part of the consumer experience. One of the biggest has been the appearance of a very popular item coupled with its lightning-fast disappearance. While the vast majority of items are around for the duration, it can be frustrating when something which was popular in the U.S. and never made it to Japan shows up and you're told it's no longer available as soon as you order it. I believe this sort of problem happens when FBC has a distribution channel which opens and dries up quickly.

With Costcos opening in Japan, we've been using the FBC less than we used to but it's, to some extent, apples and oranges. The FBC deli actually carries a small selection of Costco items (for an increased price) for those who live too far away from one to shop at one of the 5 Costcos in Japan. The FBC's selection is far greater than what you get at Costco and they carry brands you'd never see at Costco Japan. My husband and I mainly get Splenda, Da Vinci syrup, deodorant (which is vastly cheaper and in larger sticks than you can get in Japan), cold cereal like Special K or Cheerios, Guiltless Gourmet (non-fried) tortilla chips and (diet) root beer from the FBC.

If you're going to be in Japan for longer than a year and have had to put your family or friends out to send you items from home, you might want to consider looking into the FBC as a way of getting some of the things you miss from back home.


Luis said...

Over the years, my experiences with FBC have been mostly good. Some stale pretzels here, a missed item there. Nothing much... until recently. I had one of those experiences that would put you off from the sevice if (a) you didn't have a ton of good experiences with them previously, and (b) there were other viable alternatives.

I had ordered a case of Da Vinci's sugar-free caramel syrup (for frappacinos and stuff). After waiting the prerequisite month, the shipment came... and luckily I noticed the box for the syrup was too small. So before the Takkyubin guy left, I opened it, and alas, it was liquid soap.

I got FBC on the phone, and they told the Takkyubin guy to take it back, and promised me that a replacement shipment would be sent air mail from L.A., and would be at my door within a week.

Two weeks later, no shipment. I call to ask and they claim that it took two weeks for the L.A. store to get it ordered--which is BS because if that were true, they could never guarantee regular shipment within a month. Still, they say it would arrive in another week--and then I receive an invoice saying it will arrive three weeks later--more time than it would have taken for a regular shipping order.

Finally the damn thing comes... and it's only six bottles, not a dozen as ordered. They say that shpping costs were too high, so they split the order. The other half will come by surface, they say.

More than a month passes, no other six bottles, and I call again to ask what's going on. They claim that I got all 12 bottles in the original air shipment. Their L.A. office swears up and down that they shipped the whole dozen to me. I swear they didn't, and they accept my word and start the process of delivering by air. I later prove I was right by getting the Takkyubin invoice.

The second shipment of 6 bottles comes within one week of my complaint, which to me demonstrates that their initial one-month "expedited" shipment of the first six bottles was a SNAFU on their part--I think that the guy who took my original complaint in October promised me air delivery but ordered surface, and then either forgot or lied to stall me or something.

Still, the whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth. I'm not ready to leave them nor dismiss all my past good experience, but it was damned frustrating all the same.

More bad news: their shipper is crappy. For me, at least. Apparently, the shipper closed the only office within an hour's drive of my town--and I am within an hour of both Hachioji and the 23 wards. That's a huge empty space to leave uncovered. So I no longer get Monday morning deliveries--instead I get late Tuesday afternoon deliveries, when I am at work. And they shove the while-you-were-out slip completely into the door slot where I can't see it unless I open the box and fish it out--any competent takkybin service will leave the slip half-in and half-out of the door slot, so it can be immediately seen.

Nevertheless, they're still the only source for a lot of stuff, like fat-free hidden valley ranch dressing (good stuff, actually), sunflower seeds in the shell, diet caffiene-free coke, any diet root beer other than "Dad's," and many other items I'd rather not do without.

Shari said...

I forgot to mention that I think FBC's service has slipped a little as they've grown bigger and I think your experience quite clearly illustrates this. We've not had experiences as bad as yours though the e-mail issue was relatively pervasive. I don't think this is a change in their overall service so much as the fact that they hire more people and not all of them are great.

I do believe that they, like many businesses, habitually lie to cover up mistakes (like the fellow who said you'd get your stuff air but actually did it sea) but, thankfully, they don't make mistakes that least not yet. I wouldn't be surprised if they never intended to order the items by air and just planned on stalling you all along.

Still, as you point out, they're the only game in town for a lot of items and do tend to be pretty good most of the time.

Luis said...

That reminds me of another FBC annoynace: the junk mail. I tried getting off their mailing lists, because (a) I don't ever use the catalogs or other ads they send me by mail--they're just wasted paper--and (b) I hate the junk email, which sails past my spam filters because I correspond with them. However, when they removed me from their junk mail list, I stopped getting shipping notifications! They claim that the two are inextricably linked in their database. Yargh.

On the other hand, as an apology for the poor takkyubin I complained to them about, they sent three boxes of instant oatmeal (on my order list). Strange that they did not comp me anything at all for the Da Vinci Syrup disaster.

Shari said...

I think the linking of your address is probably real if they maintain their mailing list via an Excel database (which my former company did). They probably can't cut you from one if they don't cut you from the other.

However, they could maintain separate lists for the mailing list and for the customer database but they'd have to update separately. I guess they don't want to bother but it'd be a courtesy.

Your brother uses the catalogs in lessons with students. In fact, he had a few students join the FBC after he talked to him about it. He wasn't trying to get them to or anything. They just had an interest in buying foreign food.