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Mom and Pops Feel Squeeze from Chains

April 9, 1992

ICHIKAWA, Japan (AP) _ Mitsue Suzuki owns her own candy store and has sat behind the register from dawn to dusk for more than 20 years.

Her tiny shop is important to its neighborhood, as are most of Japan’s hundreds of thousands of mom and pop stores. But charm and tradition may not suffice against the convenience and lower prices of large chains.

According to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, more than half the 1.6 million retail stores in Japan in 1988 had only one or two employees. Their number is declining steadily, however, and officials expect that to continue.

A symbolic battle between small businesses and giant retail chains, and between Japanese and American trade negotiators, came to a head at Christmas with the debut in Japan of Toys R Us.

Under intense pressure from Washington, the Japanese eased restrictions on large retailers to make it possible.

Toys R Us has been a booming success and plans several new outlets, but its opening was a bitter defeat for small businesses. More than 2,000 banded together to lobby against it.

They argued that neighborhood toy stores, which depend on the labyrinthine Japanese distribution system, could not compete with a huge American retailer that ordered directly from manufacturers.

While admitting the Japanese system breeds higher prices, they stressed the social role of neighborhood stores and of shopkeeper associations, which often sponsor festivals and community activities.

Mrs. Suzuki, a 57-year-old widow, opens her store six days a week from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Most of the 80 customers a day are children from the nearby grade school. The average customer spends about 80 cents.

Dried squid on bamboo skewers and cardboard boxes overflowing with rice crackers share the shelves with chocolates and such imported products as Clorets and Bubblicious bubble gum.

Adults stop in during the afternoon, some to buy cigarettes, but mostly just to chat.

It is getting harder for small stores to keep up with Japan’s changing consumer society, particularly in cities, Mrs. Suzuki said.

She pointed up the street to a 7-Eleven and three other new convenience stores. Near the subway station are discount supermarkets, two of them built by nationwide chains.

″We can’t compete like that,″ she said. ″I tried buying directly from the wholesalers once, but I couldn’t figure it all out.

″It is very complicated and you have to know what you are doing. So I let the middlemen come to me.″

End Adv for Thursday AMs April 9

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