Faced with Japan's changing habits and demographics, delivery firm Sagawa looks to diversify

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Sagawa delivery driver Keisuke Kawabe has seen the video that went viral on the internet two years ago of one of his colleagues smashing up parcels out of frustration that the customer wasn’t home, and he doesn’t approve.

“Of course I can understand it to a small degree, but you just have to get on with your job,” said the 33-year-old Kawabe, who has worked as a delivery driver at Sagawa Express Co.’s Roppongi Go-chome service center in Tokyo’s Roppongi district for the past 10 years, as he sifted through parcels last week.

“It helps us if we’re able to make the delivery there and then, but the customers have their own times that suit them and there’s nothing we can really do about it,” he said. “You just have to get on with it.”

Sagawa, with its army of delivery men known for their blue-and-white striped shirts and photogenic good looks, is one of Japan’s most recognizable companies. Along with market leader Yamato Transport Co. and No. 3 Japan Post Co., the firm is at the forefront of Japan’s home delivery system, which has provided door-to-door service for homes and businesses and has smoothed the wheels of society for decades.

In recent years, however, serious cracks have begun to appear in the industry’s once-impregnable armor. The growth of internet shopping and Japan’s aging population have left home delivery firms overwhelmed and understaffed, with drivers putting in long hours for relatively low pay.

The industry sent 4.2 billion parcels in fiscal 2017, a 5.8 percent increase on the previous year, according to the Land, Transport and Tourism Ministry. Five years ago the industry sent 3.6 billion parcels, while 20 years ago the total was 1.8 billion.

Japan’s chronic labor shortage means delivery firms are struggling to find workers to meet the demand, although Sagawa says it hired about 4,000 new employees in fiscal 2017, increasing its workforce to around 51,000, including 30,000 delivery drivers. But the firm is aware that it needs to do more.

From next April, a new law will come into force that restricts the amount of overtime a worker can do to a maximum 720 hours a year, which works out at an average 60 hours a month. However, all companies will be granted a five-year transition period and the delivery industry will only be subject to a 960-hours-a-year limit when that finishes — an average of 80 hours a month. In principle, the government wants all companies to meet an overtime limit of 45 hours a month.

“If we have to adapt to that, we will need to increase our workforce,” Sagawa spokesman Mabuki Yamaguchi told The Japan Times. “It will be impossible to do the same amount of work in such a short time with the number of people we have now. We need to hire more people.”

Sagawa delivery personnel are assigned to a service center in a particular area and work the same route every day. The company refers to them as “drivers,” although many make their deliveries with hand-pushed carts rather than trucks.

A driver’s morning is generally taken up by deliveries, while the afternoon is usually reserved for collections. Clients can be either individual households or businesses, and the particular characteristics of each area play a large part in defining how drivers do their jobs.

“Drivers work in their own particular area, so the local people get to know their faces,” said Yamaguchi. “We’d like our drivers to be thought of in the same way as local police officers are. People that children can recognize and trust.”

Having worked out of the Roppongi Go-chome service center for the past 10 years, Kawabe is a familiar face to the people who live and work in the area.

He left his native Oita Prefecture to go to university in Tokyo and joined Sagawa straight after graduation. He generally works five days a week from around 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., although the late business hours of Roppongi’s many bars, restaurants and nightclubs means he often has to work later.

He works with six colleagues at the cramped service center, and estimates that he usually makes about 30 deliveries totaling 100 parcels a day.

“I like being active so I like being able to be out and about, speaking to customers,” he said. “If a customer says thank you, just little things like that make me happy. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and that all adds up.

“If you keep making deliveries to the same people, you develop a relationship with them. I’ve even had lunch with some of my customers. Of course it depends on the people, but if you get on well enough with your customers you can develop that kind of relationship.”

As the public face of a company under pressure to cope with increased demand, however, Kawabe acknowledges that customer relations can sometimes prove difficult.

“We have all kinds of trouble with customers,” he said. “The main things are that the parcel hasn’t been delivered or it’s late or the goods are broken. Of course some customers blame us because we’re wearing the Sagawa uniform and we’re responsible. The best thing to do is deal with it, take responsibility and talk to them.”

Kawabe goes out on his route with a cart, but he says the numerous slopes and hills in the area don’t really bother him. He is careful not to take up too much space on the pavement and says he has never bumped his cart into any parked cars. Occasionally, however, he will attract the unwanted attention of Roppongi’s nightlife patrons.

“I’ve had drunks hassling me,” he said. “I don’t respond. Of course it’s not a good thing. I’m working.”

Keisuke Kawabe delivers a parcel to a store in Tokyo
Keisuke Kawabe delivers a parcel to a store in Tokyo’s Roppongi district last week. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

Sagawa caused a nationwide stir in 2012 when it published “Sagawa Danshi,” a photo book featuring the firm’s male drivers that helped to establish their strong and handsome public image. Kawabe featured in that book and will also appear on the November page of next year’s Sagawa calendar, another of the company’s marketing innovations.

“He’s a hot guy, anyone can see that,” said Junko Sukagawa, an employee of Roppongi-based software company Fairway Corp., as she handed Kawabe a parcel for collection.

“Sagawa drivers have an image of all having big muscles and being good-looking guys, but they also do their jobs properly and have a strong sense of responsibility. They’re very trustworthy.”

For all of Kawabe’s public appeal and sense of duty, however, he does admit his job could be easier.

“It might be difficult,” he said. “But I’d like the company to hire more people.”

Yamaguchi says Sagawa is working on it. Since 2011, the company has been making a conscious effort to diversify its personnel and working environment, offering a greater variety of working hours and shifts.

“In order to attract lots of different types of people, we need to offer lots of different ways of working,” he said. “For example, last April we introduced a system of three days off a week. We also have a system where people work for only a short time. Some people only want to work four hours a day. Some people study during the afternoons and can only work at night. Some people have kids who go to school so they can only work during the afternoon. We are trying to create an environment where all of these people can work for us.”

The policy has already shown signs of bearing fruit, with the number of female employees at the company doubling since 2011. Women now make up more than a quarter of the overall workforce.

“Before 2011, the delivery industry was a man’s industry,” said Yamaguchi. “From now on, especially in Japan, if you’re not a company that provides an environment where women can work, you’re finished.

“We need diversity, not just more women. We need all kinds of people. Japan’s population is decreasing. A company like ours needs people, otherwise we can’t operate.”

Sagawa is also taking other measures to reduce the burden on its employees, even at the expense of the industry’s famed productivity. From Dec. 1 to Jan. 6, the company will stop taking orders for same-day collections, asking customers to place their request the previous day instead.

“When you’re making deliveries, you look at the parcels and decide for yourself what order you need to take them in,” said Yamaguchi. “So if you suddenly get an order to collect something that day, you have to revise your schedule, and it makes you busier.”

Other home delivery firms are also looking to cut services, with Japan Post earlier this month requesting a law revision to allow it to limit delivering ordinary postal items to weekdays. Last year, Yamato revised the times that customers could request the company to deliver.

Both Sagawa and Yamato raised their parcel delivery service fees last autumn, while Japan Post also increased its rate in spring this year.

“Everyone understands that internet shopping has grown over the years,” said Yamaguchi. “The contents of the parcels have changed. The actual amount of goods being delivered hasn’t really increased but the number of parcels has. Things are being packaged smaller. Things used to be sold by manufacturers to customers through a middleman — the retailer. Now, the manufacturers sell direct to the customer. Now, instead of sending 100 of something to a retailer, a manufacturer will send out 100 to individual customers.”

For Kawabe, as he finishes off the day’s collections and gets down to work putting the packages in the right place at the service center, the problem is not about to go away.

“I think the image that people have of us drivers is that we’re busy,” he said. “People see us working and that’s the image they have of us.”

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