LONDON – The impact of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has been felt by businesses at home and abroad, and London-based sellers of Japanese food are among those reeling from the resulting shift in exchange rates.
The pound fell nearly 15 percent against the yen after the national referendum in June, and three months on, the currency’s continued weakness is driving up the price of Japanese groceries in the capital.
The industry is also facing uncertainty over whether Britain will adopt new import regulations after it leaves the EU.
While surprised by the result of the referendum itself, the subsequent drop in exchange rates was an even greater shock to 44-year-old Hiroyuki Ohnishi, manager of the Rice Wine Shop, a small grocery store in central London.
“If the pound had kept on falling like it was — it looked like it could have dropped to ¥100 — Japanese groceries would become a luxury food,” he said.
“Japanese food and food culture have only just become well-known and accepted abroad recently; prices were finally becoming comparable with local produce here. Now that we have to raise prices again, it feels like we are taking a step back,” Ohnishi lamented.
Six months ago £1 was worth around ¥160, but at the time this story was written it was only worth around ¥135, making Japanese goods significantly more expensive.
Since the referendum, suppliers have been raising prices.
Ohnishi said: “Of course we absorb what we can in terms of the rising price, but it’s difficult when it goes up so much. There’s a point where we have to raise the price on the shelf, but we try to maintain affordable prices for the customer.”
The store has tried to minimize price hikes for products with a fast turnaround, such as rice and condiments. Although customers have been understanding, Ohnishi said sales dropped.
Profit is roughly the same as the same time last year, but considering that purchasing costs have increased, it means people are buying less in the store.
“I don’t think this decline will continue in the long term, but it looks a little bleak for the next year or two,” he admitted.
The Japan Centre, a Japanese supermarket in front of Piccadilly Circus, is also feeling the economic impact of the British exit suspense.
Tak Tokumine, 67, the store’s chief executive, said the vote and the weak pound have directly affected purchasing costs. He is expecting inflation in general to follow soon.
Having opened shop in the 1970s, however, he is set to wait out the storm.
“I experienced this sort of thing many, many times in the past since 1973, therefore I can go through and wait for the moment to grow again. It is still too early to say what will happen; we have to wait and act until Britain is out of Europe,” he said.
Currency fluctuations tend to hit smaller and midsize businesses harder, according to Edward Hardy, corporate market analyst for currency exchange company World First.
“As is always the case with sharp currency fluctuations, there are winners and losers. After the pound fell by over 15 percent against the yen in the weeks following the referendum, businesses that trade overseas faced a wholly different operating environment to the one they’d come accustomed to in the months ahead of the vote, he said.
“While the future trajectory of the pound is very difficult to forecast, it’s highly likely that volatility is far from over. (Prime Minister) Theresa May’s government is yet to invoke Article 50 and the market will be quick to judge the chances of the U.K.’s lackluster negotiating team securing a strong trade deal with Brussels, which could occur as soon as early 2017.”
Until more is known about the new Britain-European Union relationship, uncertainty is likely to continue.
Hardy also suggested more surprises were to come.
“The Bank of Japan’s scatter-gun strategy with monetary policy will also keep the Japanese yen volatile and unpredictable at least until the end of 2016,” he said.
But currency swings aren’t the only worries Japanese food businesses linked to Britain face. EU regulations on imported food are known to be some of the strictest in the world, but it is unclear what British regulations will look like it goes through with the exit.
This could have implications for manufacturers and importers of Japanese food, because major food brands have invested in developing products tailor-made to comply with current EU requirements.
Ohnishi pointed out that Japanese curry sauce mix made for EU export would have a different makeup than those sold domestically.
“Until new legislation is introduced, we don’t know what kind of change to expect. For now, it’s all up in the air and it’s worrying,” he said.
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