Innovative firms profit on spiking fuel prices

Washable suits, electric bicycles doing well as inflationary fallout from surging crude oil prices expands

by Hiroko Nakata

For businesspeople, one of summer’s great discomforts is sweating in a suit under a sizzling sun.

Clothier Konaka Co., however, has come up with a way to make it easier to deal with sweltering summers — a wrinkle-free suit that can be washed in the shower and hung up to dry.

When the heat is unavoidable, these new popular suits are keeping businesspeople feeling clean and clothing expenses down at a time when sky-high fuel prices are raising the cost of dry-cleaning, which Konaka says is less effective than water.

“At first, the suits sold twice as fast as we expected. Now, we’re running out of stock,” Konaka spokesman Shigeyuki Tsuchiya said.

Since the company released “the world’s first washable suit” in February, sales have eclipsed the ¥2 billion mark projected for this year. Tsuchiya said they are most popular with businessmen in their 30s and 40s who wear suits every day.

Available in two styles — one by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto and the other by British designer John Pearse — the suits start at ¥51,450.

But surging gas prices are having a positive effect on other businesses, too, including electric bicycles.

One maker, Yamaha Motor Co., said corporate demand for electric bikes is up this year, thanks to steady demand from commuters and mothers, who use them to carry their kids.

Last year, domestic shipments of electric bicycles rose 5.3 percent to 253,053 units compared with the previous year, more than doubling the annual pace of gains. Shipments from January to May alone hit 117,748 units, according to the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute.

“Due to the recent surge in crude oil prices and rising concerns about the environment, electric bikes are attracting attention,” Yamaha spokeswoman Satoko Ogawa said.

In the corporate sector, home delivery services and pizza joints are replacing some of their motorcycles with electric bikes to save on fuel and avoid parking problems.

As for general demand, the use of electric bikes by commuters has been rising for the last four years, in tandem with the bikes’ development, Ogawa said.

At a Yamato Transport Co. service center in Koto Ward, Tokyo, 13 shift workers share five electric bikes to negotiate the narrow streets of the downtown district.

“It is very easy to carry things,” said Yusuke Sakurai, a 21-year-old Yamato worker. “But when the battery dies, it suddenly becomes heavy, probably heavier than a normal bicycle,” he said.

A charge usually lasts 12 hours, but under a heavy load, the bicycle might need recharging after only a few hours.

Before the delivery center opened two years ago, five vans were used to bring in parcels from a bigger center 10 to 15 minutes away. Now the delivery center doesn’t even use vans, said Masaru Onuki, head of the delivery center.

“By using electric bikes, we have better communications with the people living here,” he said.

According to the Oil Information Center in Japan, regular gasoline averaged ¥182 per liter on July 10, which was nearly 30 percent higher than the same month the previous year.