Friday, May 25, 2007

Goodbye, Surface Mail

My husband is in the U.S. now mainly to visit his family but he's also using the opportunity to shop for things of consequence and things totally frivolous that we might desire or need. In fact, we prepared for his trip by ordering a fair number of hard to find or relatively more expensive items from Amazon U.S. including a wireless router and a dual-layer DVD player. Neither of these items can be shipped to Japan and Japanese models are significantly pricier.

Since there is an absolute abundance of food in the U.S. that we've never seen or sampled, he decided to pick up some things and bring them back for us and for his students. In fact, looking at the pictures he has taken in the markets makes me think that there are absolutely staggering numbers of choices in the U.S. in regards to food for nearly every niche.

I also started to wonder if one element of Americans being overweight that is often overlooked is the fact that the abundance of land allows shops to put such an incredible variety of goods on shelves (relative to Japan where space is at a premium) that people are compelled to buy more simply to explore all of the attractive possibilities.

Perhaps I've just been in Japan so long that I've forgotten what it's like but I truly don't recall seeing such vast selections when I was back home. I guess it could be the difference between my small, rural home town and my husband's suburban home town but the selection of items isn't really what the point of this post is about. I merely mean to explain that my husband was buying things in the U.S. which we cannot get in Japan with the intention of sending back some boxes of interesting, tasty or trivial items.

He went to the post office to investigate the cost after having already done some shopping only to find that, as of May 14, 2007, the United States Postal Service (USPS) no longer will ship items via surface mail. This is incredibly bad news for those of us living abroad because this was the cheapest way of sending certain types of non-perishable or very heavy items to Japan.

My husband's sister did some investigating and found that UPS (United Parcel Service) will ship items to Japan and charge by box size (rather than by weight as the USPS does) for about half the rate of airmail parcel post. Using this type of shipping takes about 4-5 days. It's still relatively expensive and does reward the shipping of heavy, small items over bulky light items (which are the most common types of items one sends via surface mail) but it appears to be the best option for now.

Update: Apparently, my sister-in-law was misinformed and UPS is actually greatly more expensive than the postal service so there are no quasi-economical options for now.

My guess is the USPS is having trouble, unsurprisingly, breaking even and decided to discontinue the least profitable services. I've known for quite some time that non-First Class mail has been a loser for the USPS and something they mainly provided as a service to those who really needed it. It's possible that they decided that, while they have to keep inferior grade parcel delivery available domestically, they really aren't obliged to do it internationally. It's a shame really and I'm hoping some business will find a way to offer seamail (surface) shipping in the future to fill the gap left by this change.


tornados28 said...

Americans love to have many choices hence the vast selection of food. Unfortunately, alot of the food is junk food crap which helps lead to so many overweight Americans.

Japanese food stores have a much smaller selection and quantity of "junk food" which allows the stores to not need to be too large.

Shari said...

I honestly think that the stores are small because of space restrictions in the urban areas and not because of consumer choice. I couldn't show all the pictures my husband took but there is just as vast a selection of relatively healthy food as there is of junk. There's just a greater selection across the board of everything in the States.

The fact that Japanese shops cram in as much as possible, often leaving very narrow aisle space and cramming a bunch of stuff outside the shop, would seem to indicate they want to offer as much as possible.

Besides, there's really no shortage of crappy food that's bad for you in Japan and some of it is actually (and oddly) quite huge portion-wise. Take some of the cake/bread selections in convenience stores. They are sometimes rather gargantuan. Proportionally, the junk food selection is no less than it is in the U.S. There's just less of everything in every section here and more of everything in every section there.

Roy said...

When I went back to Canada after 12 years in Japan, I also was surprised at how huge the stores are and how much stuff they stocked in those giant supermarkets. Like a huge pile of bananas that I'm sure 70% when bad because there are just not enough people to buy them. I also took photos of the cereal box aisle!!!

Shari said...

I must say the cereal aisle is particularly telling of an overabundance of variety. There are two different boxes of what look like the almost the same variety of cereal!

In fact, cereal is one thing I'm sure has expanded dramatically since I was last there. There was shredded wheat and frosted mini-wheats when I was there and now there are 4 varieties. I think what is more mind-boggling is that there are variations on things like "Lucky Charms".

Kai|Kat said...

When I first visited my relatives in the US I thought I shrank. Everything was BIG... the people (in general), the roads, the cars, the food servings (my brothers were overjoyed with this one) and when my Mom took us grocery shopping I was running down the aisles like a lunatic. I had never imagined there were a bazillion varieties of cereal and milk to choose from.

It's not just food choices, I like reading books and most of the titles I'm interested in are never found here in Manila unless I have them specially ordered. I end up buying them through Amazon and having them shipped to a relative in California then wait (and pray really hard) that someone's going to come home within a month or two. It's cheaper that way.

We don't get too many shopping choices here because the average consumer usually can't afford pricey items--and foreign goods are certainly more expensive than local ones. Before, unless its a really well known brand (like Kellogg's, Nestle etc) or is packaged locally you wouldn't see it on the shelves. It's only recently (around five years) that grocery stores actually have considerably larger selections of goods to choose from.

Shari said...

Hi, and thanks for your comment, Kai|Kat. I never thought about the possibility that brand variety might be restricted due to the consumer's ability to pay though that might go some way toward explaining (to some extent) why those of us growing up in rural areas of the U.S. don't see the same vast amounts of choice as is shown in my husband's pictures.

I wonder if part of the reason brands have exploded is research into market saturation in the U.S. If you sell Cheerios and everyone who eats them regularly is already buying them, the only way to expand your market is to offer new types which will draw in other customers. I'm guessing demographic data has come a long way since I lived in the U.S.

Sean P. Aune said...

Yeah Shari, UPS international shipping is a NIGHTMARE. Avoid at all costs.

As for th lack of surface mail, yep, gone and dead. Global Priority is about the only option now, sadly, for anything close to being economical.

Shari said...

I was thinking that small businesses that may send items by surface as an economical alternative to air are really going to be screwed over by this.

I'm guessing though that you probably never used surface as your buyers are big enough crybabies as it is. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Everyone is competing for your money. And people who read about food on the internet want more and more choices. For milk there is a choice between source (cow or soy), fat content (fat-free, 1%, 2%, or whole), production method (organic or non-organic). In addition for cow's milk you can choose lactose content (regular or lactose free) and if it has been homogenized or not. Sometimes you are offered milk from a relatively local producer.

Your husband took a picture of "pastries". In large cities, many grocery stores have their own bakery section that offer pastries not injected with a gallon of preservatives and cost cutting artificial ingredients. Unfortunately those junk are sometimes cheaper and the packaging is more colorful to attract kids.

If markets in Japan are anything similiar to Mitsuwa here in New Jersey, I pity you. There is absolutely nothing with substance except for rice and sushi-quality fish. Everything else is just all style. The fruits and vegetables aren't organic but are so overpriced you would think you're shopping in Japan and not the US.

mitzh said...

Hello, Shari! How are you? It's been quite a while since I last visited your page.

All I can say is-- WOW!!! I think that if ever I do live in the US, I'll end up so fat. I just can't resist all those foods and drinks.

That's why a part of me really wants to move to Canada. I love the foods, the drinks and the books that seems to be so hard to find here in Japan. Then a part of me don't want to because of my family that I'm going to leave behind...

Hope all is well.. ;)

Shari said...

anonymous: Hi there, and thanks for your comment. My husband actually took pictures of a great many things but not all the pictures turned out (some were blurry) and there were too many to include. However, if the point you meant to make is that including that photo misrepresents the situation, it's a valid point.

The markets in Japan are probably better than markets in the U.S. but I can't say for sure. The vegetables and fruit are very expensive, particularly those which are domestically grown. Imports from the U.S. and China are cheaper. Organic stuff is very hard to find.

mitzh: Hi there and welcome back. :-)

Alan in CA said...

I found my way here researching the disappearing surface mail phenomenon.

Could we mark up the package as if it were coming from Japan to the U.S., then mark it "return to sender?" Nah...

Going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan I notice how Japan always shrank when I was in the U.S., and the U.S. always grew while I was in Japan. The biggest difference is the amount of space devoted to automobiles in the U.S.; start adding it up and it is considerable. Reduce that to the same proportion as in Japan, and U.S. towns would be significantly more compact.

Shari said...

Hi, Alan, and thanks for your comment! I like what you said about being in a particular country making the other seem smaller or bigger.

As for reverse addressing and marking something "return to sender", I think that can actually get you in trouble if you get caught. One of my husband's former penpals used to do that in the U.S. She never got caught but it really angered the person she did it to because she didn't want to be on the receiving end of such a package.

Anonymous said...

Kuroneko yamato takkyubin ships from the US. Oddly enough theyre the cheapest way to ship packages from here... check it out