FUKUOKA -- The chocolate industry and department stores in Japan face an uphill battle as the custom of giving sweets to people at workplaces and elsewhere on Valentine's Day is on the brink of being lost while more people work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Giri choco" -- chocolate gifts handed out in the workplace out of courtesy -- had already been dying out in recent years before the coronavirus wreaked havoc, but stores in Japan are eagerly attempting to spur demand ahead of Feb. 14.
"We have braced ourselves for a decrease in sales by at least 20% compared to the year before. Giri choco demand is especially in a grave situation," so said a representative of a department store in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka in late January, as the battle for sales of Valentine's Day chocolates heated up. The department store has seen less customers as the area has been covered by the ongoing coronavirus state of emergency, and has reduced the number of booths for chocolate-selling events.
Valentine's Day had taken root in Japan as a day where women send chocolate gifts to men. Although giving out giri choco was previously a widespread practice at the workplace and other locations like it, a move to quit the custom picked up speed as there were cases of both women and men -- who are expected to give gifts in return -- feeling the burden. A newspaper advertisement by a chocolate brand calling for the public to "stop giri choco" gathered attention in 2018. Survey results by MyVoice Communications Inc., an internet research company based in Tokyo, also showed that although in 2010, 56.8% of respondents said that they had either given or received a present on Valentine's Day, the percentage dropped to 44.8% in 2020.
In addition to Valentine's Day falling on a Sunday this year, teleworking practices have become more common to prevent coronavirus infections, and there are also companies that restrict the sharing of food. For such reasons, an employee at a food company said, "I used to personally hand out chocolates to business partners and bosses I'm close to, but I won't do it this year," while an office worker remarked, "Female employees had been exchanging chocolates amongst ourselves, but it was actually bothersome. I'm glad that I don't need to do it this year."
The Japan Anniversary Association, based in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, has estimated this year's market size for Valentine's Day to be smaller by around 20% compared to the previous year. It predicts that "giri choco may nearly go extinct."
Stores and chocolate makers have been making steady efforts to entice consumers under these harsh circumstances. The Fukuoka Tenjin branch of Daimaru department store has made special versions of tiny cube-shaped "Tirol" chocolates, which have the names of high schools, universities and other institutions printed on their wrappers. A total of 58 wrapper variations were prepared as "deco choco," which cost 79 yen, or about 75 cents apiece. A representative expressed hope that the product will be popular among those preparing for entrance exams and graduating students.
A Kitakyushu-based confectionery firm that sells "Neji Choco" treats shaped like bolts and nuts has started a free service of attaching a card to products bought online. A representative commented, "Online orders have been going well. Customers will probably send the gifts to those they can't meet amid the pandemic."
While giri choco sales have dropped in recent years, there have been more people treating themselves to imported chocolates that are usually difficult to come by, and department stores have competed to provide a wide range of limited products and chocolates using cacao from carefully selected regions. It wasn't rare for customers to spend tens of thousands of yen, or several hundred dollars, on chocolate purchases after they were invited to taste and compare different samples, but this too changed suddenly following the coronavirus. Not being able to provide tasting samples to avoid infections has also served as a setback to the industry.
A chocolate brand that set up a booth at a sales event at Iwataya department store's main store in the city of Fukuoka, explained, "Although it hurts that we can't have customers taste samples, we are giving easy-to-understand explanations about the particular work that went into making the chocolate and its taste."
The Daimaru department store's Fukuoka Tenjin branch is currently holding an event that collaborates with some 30 confectionery shops selling red bean paste sweets. A representative said, "We didn't limit our products to just chocolates, and brought together popular sweets that customers can enjoy for themselves."
(Japanese original by Hiroshi Hisano, Kyushu Business News Department)