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Why do Japanese shops change their sweet stocks so often?

Japanese consumers prize novelty and seasonal-specific treats.

A trip to the sweet aisle of any British supermarket or corner shop is unlikely to be a novel experience. Bar a few exceptions (hello, creme eggs) the same selection of chocolate bars and other sweet treats is likely to be on sale regardless of the location or time of year.

Not so in Japan, where the confectionery is constantly changing - as often as once a week in the convenience stores that dot Japanese cities. Specific flavours are also linked to specific seasons - chocolate mint for summer, sweet potato for autumn, strawberry for winter and cherry for spring (to match the cherry blossoms Japan is so famous for). Treats that pay homage to regional specialities, such as sweets shaped like local delicacies, are also popular.

The difference between Japanese and British sweets is an example of economic markets in action. A market is just anywhere that goods or services are bought and sold. Economists say that if markets are left to their own devices (i.e. they are what they call ‘free’ markets), markets will naturally shift towards a set up which generally benefits both buyers and sellers. That’s because although these two groups have different priorities (buyers are often chasing the best value, sellers the most profit), they have to meet in the middle in order to complete a transaction. You may hear this idea referred to as ‘the invisible hand’.

However, most markets around the world cannot be described as purely free markets, because of government involvement. Government regulation affects free markets in all sorts of ways. Minimum wages can trickle down into prices. Safety regulations can determine which products end up on the shelves. Business tax rules influence whether things like sweets are made by lots and lots of small independent companies or a few big global ones.

In many ways, sweet markets in the UK and Japan are quite similar. Both economies are rich, have high regulatory standards around things like food safety and workers rights, and trade openly with the rest of the world. Indeed, both British and Japanese shelves are stocked by many of the same companies. So why is it that while in Japan you can have KitKats in over 200 weird and wonderful flavours (including mascarpone cheese and cough drop), here in the UK you’re pretty much limited to the basic milk/dark/orange chocolate varieties?

Well, it partly boils down to the different tastes and preferences of consumers in each place. KitKat actually tried launching a bunch of new flavours in Britain in the ‘00s, but gave up after too few people bought them. Part of the reason may be that novelty often comes at a price. It’s almost always more expensive for a business to manufacture a different version of a product than to make more copies of the same thing. There’s a few reasons for this: you may have to retool machines, it’s cheaper to buy ingredients in bulk etc. Japanese consumers seem to be happier to pay extra for novelty than Brits do.

Read our explainer on: consumer choice theory

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