Japan’s Sengoku Jidai (Age of Warring States) designates a century and a half of anarchic feudal war. It lasted from 1467 to 1615, when the nation was unified at last and sank exhausted into a peace that lasted until modern times. Idled samurai glorified the wars as their romantic heyday, but from a modern standpoint there is little good to be said about them. To us they appear as pointless, seemingly endless slaughter.
When, therefore, Shukan Post (Feb 28-March 6) features Sengoku Jidai in a headline, the reader naturally takes notice. When the words preceding are “chain restaurant,” bewilderment overcomes us. There were, of course, no restaurant chains during the Sengoku Jidai. Obviously, then, there’s a sengoku jidai going on now, among chain restaurants.
So it proves. Competition is feral. Winners win big, losers fall hard. And the magazine’s story doesn’t even mention the lately raging viral epidemic keeping people home as much as possible. Things seem likely to get worse before they get better.
What does it take to be a winner in a sengoku jidai among restaurant chains? What makes a winner a winner and a loser a loser?
There’s no easy answer. A restaurant tries a new gimmick, and it takes. Another tries another, maybe no less ingenious and attractive in its way, but somehow it doesn’t take. So let’s follow Shukan Post and look at some cases.
Case one: Kentucky Fried Chicken vs Mos Burger. It seems at first like comparing apples and oranges – fried chicken vs hamburgers. But both had appealed to roughly the same customer base – fast food and yet relatively high end. And both were very popular.
Then came a parting of the ways. KFC rides high, Mos Burger languishes. Why?
KFC read the times better. Low prices sold. High prices – even slightly high prices – gave more and more customers second thoughts. KFC then came up with a great idea: “one-coin” menus. Full-course meals for 500 yen. Click! 2019 sales soared 8.5 percent above the previous year’s.
Mos Burger, meanwhile, during the same period, fell 900 million yen into the red. It, too, tried reducing its prices, but the reform was too partial and hesitant to amount to a redefinition. Belt-tightening customers deserted.
Two competing kaiten sushi chains tell roughly the same story – Sushiro, long Japan’s leader in the sector, and its closest competitor, Kurazushi. Sushiro surges, Kurazushi struggles. The gap between them widens.
Part of the story is a snag Kurazushi hit last spring, when a disgruntled part-time employee went viral on social media with clips of fish in a trash can and the company logo in plain view. That’s image-tarnishing on a grand scale.
But there’s more to it than that, Shukan Post finds. A recent trend among kaiten sushi purveyors is diversification – side menus featuring beef-and-rice, ramen, and so on. Kurazushi in fact was a pioneer in that development. Perhaps it went too far. Was it a sushi restaurant, or not? Kaiten sushi purists sought the real thing elsewhere – at Sushiro, for instance, which also introduced non-sushi fare but without blurring its identity as, first and foremost, a purveyor of sushi.
That seems the heart of the matter: how to adapt to changing market trends without sacrificing your distinctiveness? For businesses as for individuals – it’s a tough question.© Japan Today