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Trading house Marubeni Corp. is leaning toward Aeon Co. as its partner in a tieup to bolster struggling supermarket chain Daiei, sources said Wednesday.

Marubeni prefers Aeon, the largest supermarket chain in Japan, over U.S. giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., because of Aeon’s successful rehabilitation of another supermarket chain, Mycal Corp.

The trading house, which holds more than 44 percent of Daiei’s stock, has decided to give Aeon the right of first refusal to enter into negotiations with Daiei, and hopes to conclude a formal alliance by the end of this month, they said. Aeon is expected to acquire part of Marubeni’s stake in Daiei as part of the deal.

Neither Marubeni nor Aeon confirmed the agreement Wednesday, but Daiei is expected to make an announcement Friday after a shareholders’ meeting.

Marubeni has been looking for a major retailer to assist Daiei with its restructuring since the trading house became Daiei’s largest shareholder, purchasing a massive number of Daiei shares from the government-backed Industrial Revitalization Corp. of Japan in August.

Aeon and Wal-Mart submitted proposals to Marubeni for the tieup on Sept. 5.

Daiei was once the country’s largest retailer, growing rapidly through its aggressive price-cutting strategy, but it plunged into financial crisis due to overly aggressive diversification.

In December 2004, Daiei gave up trying to recover on its own and turned to the government-backed bailout agency for help.

With the retailer on sounder financial footing, IRCJ sold its equity stake to Marubeni in August.

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