MITO -- Shopping services offered by taxi companies are in high demand as the novel coronavirus pandemic prompts many to keep indoors, especially elderly people at higher risk of developing a deadly case of COVID-19.
At the same time as they are helping out the growing ranks of "stay-at-home consumers," taxi companies are also looking to take advantage of this new income stream to make up for a sharp fall in paying passengers.
Sawayaka Kotsu, a taxi company based in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, offers a shopping service primarily for the residents of the prefectural capital plus the nearby cities of Hitachinaka and Tsukuba, where it maintains offices. Customers phone or fax in lists of what and how much they need, and a driver zips off to fill the order. The company mainly deals with items that can be bought at supermarkets or drugstores, but will also deliver take-out from restaurants and bento lunch boxes. Many people apparently also request clothing items from nearby shops.
Customers are charged for the fare from the stores to their home, plus a 500-yen service fee and the cost of the items, with the total bill often in the 2,000-3,000-yen range, according to Sawayaka Kotsu, as many purchase requests can be fulfilled at nearby shops.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused sales to plummet at the company, which operates about 60 taxis mainly in Mito, Hitachinaka and Tsukuba. According to President Yuji Onuki, 62, falling tourist numbers and people refraining from nights out have played a major part in the revenue drop, with March sales dropping to around 70% of what they are in normal years.
Normally, tourists flock to Hitachi Seaside Park in Hitachinaka by taxi to see nemophila flowers, which are in full bloom around this time of year until the Golden Week holiday from late April to early May. However, the park has been closed due to the coronavirus, so the taxi company's earnings could fall further.
In late March, the Sawayaka Kotsu decided to bolster its shopping service to counter the virus crisis. While the service used to cover registered members aged 65 and older, the firm abolished the age requirement and membership registration. Inquiries and shopping requests poured in, and taxi drivers with fewer usual customers are now joining the shopping service.
As more and more people refrain from nonessential outings due to the outbreak, a growing number of restaurants and other establishments in city centers are offering take-away dishes.
"I hope that our shopping service will attract even more customers and help to revitalize the towns," Onuki said.
A 76-year-old housewife who cares for her husband at their home in Hitachinaka said she was going out far less than usual due to fears she would bring the virus back home. On a recent day, she requested the taxi company to buy daily necessities for her at a drugstore.
"It helps me a lot as the driver brings the items to our front door. I'd like to use the service again," she said.
For more information about the shopping service, call Sawayaka Kotsu at 029-232-0121 (in Japanese)
(Japanese original by Kyoka Kobayashi, Mito Bureau)