Foreign Buyers' Club going strong after 20 years

Chuck Grafft CEO, founder The Foreign Buyers’ Club

TOKYO —

When American Chuck Grafft and his wife Kelly started a co-op in the late 1980s to import items that they and their friends in the foreign community missed most from home (bagels, breakfast cereal and peanut butter), they probably had no idea that more than 20 years later, their business would be booming, offering more than 40,000 items to thousands of families ordering several thousand items every week.

Japan Today hears more from Grafft about his success story.

Why did you start the Foreign Buyers’ Club?

Kelly and I started the FBC to help those of us in the community who missed things from home. It was like a hobby for the first few years. We took two years to get set up and get approval to import items.

How has business been so far this year?

Fairly steady. We have about the same number of orders but less items per order.

What tend to be your best-selling items all year-round?

All the breakfast cereals and diet items—recently a lot of the healthy items that are big in the U.S.—and a lot of organic products.

What percentage of your customers are foreign?

We estimate about half.

What sort of feedback do you get from customers? For example, are you constantly getting requests to stock this or that product?

Thankfully lots of nice comments and appreciation for being able to get almost anything for people- the range of what we get is enormous especially since we started Madi’s ReMailing Service.

Has the March 11 disaster affected your business in any way?

At first we saw a drop, as I think everyone was focused on finding out what had happened. Then things took off a bit as people realized the impact and the need to have a stock of items on hand. In Tokyo, many realized that they are still on the cusp of the big one (which we have all been expecting), but this one was not that.

Was there a rush of orders for disaster emergency kits and bottled water?

Not at first but about two weeks later when the water in Tokyo was found to be unhealthy for infants, we sold about 1,000 cases of imported U.S. water.

Looking back at the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, what did that do to your business?

Well, it was major. About one-quarter of our staff had homes damaged or destroyed. Our office was messed up, but OK. We moved operations outside of the main Kobe area for about six weeks. One funny thing was the way we had to receive our weekly air shipments with documents and paperwork from the U.S. We had them all sent to one of our workers in Kyoto who would take the train in as close as he could and then had a bike he would use to come the last 10 miles or so to the office—then back again at night to haul things out.

Did you think about leaving Japan as a result or moving your business to another location, either temporarily or permanently?

Temporarily we did—up to our home which was just on the edge of the most affected area. But we never thought of leaving, though.

How long did it take you to rebuild?

That’s hard to say as it was incremental, and this situation up north will be the same. It took months to feel like it was basically back to normal, but even then everything took longer. The expressway took about a year to rebuild, so traffic was a mess for a long time and something many would not think of is the time it took for every meeting we would have. We always had to start by taking time to ask how they had been and how is it for you now? That was important but really changed the pace of life and work.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs such as yourself who have suffered damage in the Tohoku disaster?

Pray and give us a call and we’ll see what we can do to help.

Do you have a plan in case your area is hit by another disaster?

I would not say it’s a plan like big companies have, but we do have off-site backups and water and emergency kits, so there is some level of preparation. Far more than what we had in 1995.

As an entrepreneur, are you bearish or bullish on the future of Japan?

I came in 1985 and so have seen what have been called the “golden years” and then the tough years. There are always businesses that do well and those that need to change to match the times. Japan is going to be a good place for most of us who are alive now and after that, I think it will still be a good place to work and live, but we’ll need to learn Chinese.

How do you market your business? Do you advertise?

We have almost always relied almost completely on word of mouth.

What does your LA office do?

They receive all the goods we order and send them on. These days we also do the buying for many of the international schools in Japan and other parts of Asia. This is a division most don’t even really know about, but it keeps LA super busy and is about one-third of our business now.

Is your business a 7-day-a-week job?

In a lot of ways, it’s not like working at a regular job One could probably say it’s like having kids 24/7.

How do you like to relax when you are not working?

Playing with my dogs, kids and wife.

  • 0

    shirokuma2011

    Considering how many of these items are now widely available in Japan, 20 years on, I'm surprised they've managed to maintain a robust business.

  • 0

    whyRUasking

    Considering how many of these items are now widely available in Japan, 20 years on, I'm surprised they've managed to maintain a robust business.

    Have you ever seen a catalog shirokuma? They got stuff in there that is impossible to find, particularly for those of us not living in Tokyo or Osaka.

    A bit pricey however.

  • 0

    asianTourist

    It is a good entrepreneurial idea to serve foreigner who live in Japan. A couple can manage their own business venue.

  • 0

    sillygirl

    LOVE FBC - thank you for many years and many more to come,

  • 0

    stevecpfc

    LOst faith in FBC a while back. Theyt are pretty big but charge more than otehrs that are a small concern. They increased prices when Dollar was strong andeven added extra to the invoices but now there is no reductuion in prices.

    I run businesess and when i get cheaper i pass on at least some of my savings to the customer. I understand there are overheads , but the prices are unforgivable. A small amount of people are getting very rich probably because of expats on company credit cards whilst many could not afford the prices.

    Better option is Costco, Grand Marche or one of the liquor stores selling import stuff.

  • 0

    jforce

    Love the FBC, and Rakuten, and all the other options. What's good here is we have options to order from via the web.

    FBC may have slightly higher prices, but I'm willing to support a small business that has proven to me over the years they care. They've always had and continue to have the best (bilingual) customer service in Japan.

  • 0

    chuckbello

    I used to order a lot from FBC but when Costco opened in Makuhari I found out they were charging more and you have to wait couple days for the goods. I think 20 years ago, it was useful now foreigners have so many options to choose from.

  • 0

    billybudweiser

    ¥430 for a can of beans? Cheaper to go to Okachimachi where I can get it for ¥200. A&W Root Beer for ¥100.

  • 0

    shirokuma2011

    A&W root beer 100 yen? Where in Okachimachi!? :-)

  • 0

    Laguna

    FBC - like family. Absolutely trustworthy. Don't order as often as my tastes have gone native and more stuff available locally; nonetheless, I'd like to offer a big thanks to Chuck for a job well-done.

  • 0

    ihavegreatlegs

    I rarely go to costco as the lots are too big and do not have a car. I cannot go through a giant bag of onions or potatoes either. Ridiculous sizes. FBC is too expensive. I buy local and get everything I need. Live local style, buy local style, and I make good money.

  • 0

    techall

    I cannot go through a giant bag of onions or potatoes either. Ridiculous sizes.

    You gotta remember that the target market for COSTCO is commercial users. You, as a private customer, just reap the price benefits of buying wholesale. But for the most part the packaging sizes remain commercial although they do break bulk for a lot of items.

  • -1

    justadude

    I love FBC! Delivery to my door and a great selection of things that I can't find anywhere else in Japan. Costco is great too, but FBC is family.

  • 0

    CapnSinbad

    I didn't realize FBC was still around, I used to order from them many years ago. Glad to know they're still in the game.

  • 0

    papasmurfinjapan

    Yeah, they are a bit pricey, but they are catering to a niche market (us) so I figure they need to jack up the prices to remain profitable. I'm sure Costco must really be hurting their sales recently though. A majority of the stuff I used to get through FBC I now just buy at Costco for half the price.

  • 0

    bass4funk

    I agree with Papasmurf and Steve.

    While FBC offer great items, they can be a bit pricey, so I just oder only the items that I really truly need or I go to Costco or other companies where I can get a really good deal. Someone is definitely making bank, don't begrudge them, but for people that really don't shop around for a great deal and think that FBC is giving you the best for your buck, then you are sadly mistaken. Don't get me wrong, the staff are friendly, never had a problem with them, but THERE ARE places that can give you better deals. But unlike a lot of businesses in Japan at least in this particular industry, there are choices out there.

  • 0

    scap

    Costco's coming to Japan must have been a terrible blow to FBC's business. However, you have to appreciate what they have done. I get stuff that I can't get at Costco for about the same as or just a little more than the US price, delivered to my door for 400 yen. How can you complain about that? Congratultions to FBC on 20 years of making life in Japan more comfortable for foreign residents.

  • 0

    ironchef

    way too expensive and no value-added services. It's a commoditized business, folks, maximize your yen's worth elsewhere.

  • 0

    namabiru4me

    I can get most of the good stuff from the MeatGuy!

  • 0

    Zenny11

    MeatGuy is cool and also offer Pies.

    Waiting for a delivery myself, rest I tend to get locally or make myself.

  • 0

    Noripinhead

    For me, FBC serves its purpose about once a year, around Thanksgiving time. Thanks for the frozen turkeys and boxes stuffing! For other "foreign" stuff, I go to Kaldi.

  • 0

    Zenny11

    Kaldi, is good. For turkey, etc I got the local Kinokuniya, Miyuraya and many more stores.

    FBC is still good though for people outside the big metropolitan centres but others are taking over.

    Want to know more there is the JT forum. ;)

  • 0

    stevecpfc

    I bought a refrigerated product at Costco for 485 Yen last year (Costco own brand). Costco had sourced this product, sent to Japan and after overheads had charged this price. At the same time FBC had the same product, obviously bought in Costco nearby (25 min drive from their HQ) and they were charging over 1,100 Yen.

  • 0

    bass4funk

    I hear you Steve, that's why I just go and do some research and buy the items at wherever I can get a good deal. Some things at Costco, others at Kaldi, FBC, the Meat Guy is GREAT too! So I just go everywhere and NOT just stick to one company, that wouldn't be smart shopping now would it?

  • 0

    keika1628

    Chuck Grafft You will always get the penniless begrudging mob take a swipe at your business and claim something else. Well done son

  • 0

    seesaw2

    I just don't understand why people have to go through the hassle of listing up and ordering things and waiting for them to be delivered...! I would just cycle over to Seiyu as and when I like and go Tokyu Food Show as and when I needed to. No hassle.

  • 0

    BurakuminDes

    Good story! Finally a realistic write up on the "Executive Impact" - not the usual guy banging on about "synergising the japanese/foreign market" or some such nonsense. Grafft sounds like a down to earth bloke too. I may just order from FBC now...

  • -1

    hoserfella

    If half of FBC customers are Japanese, and Costco are doing great business in Japan, it always amazes me that Japanese supermarkets don't catch on. They continue to have a horrible selection of almost everything except sembei.

  • 0

    kiwi07

    I used to use them but when I was living in the Inaka I switched to other services such as theflyingpig and Yoyo market which both buy from Costco and send it to your door. No memebership fee`s etc that way.

  • -1

    stevecpfc

    keika1628; you think if i don't like FBC prices that i am penniless? Then think again. I choose the best options for what i want. Used to be FBC but unlike other retailers like Costco and Aeon they have not reduced any prices of imported goods due to the savings they make due to the stringth of the Yen.

    They do have great customer service, but that does not justify some of the prices.

  • 0

    keika1628

    Steve, Wasn't having a pop at you personally , all very well living in Chiba and spending a day out with the kids shopping for goodies you can't buy local. I remember the days when you couldn't get a lamb chop or a decent potato and some crumbly mature cheddar , Yes, these days we have choice , You can take your life in your hands and drive out to the discounts or do something else with your valuable time and order online.

    We are approaching the day where everyone connected will shop and the shop will do the drop , We can support our Gaijin Business and give these guys a lift . The Zenny dude up above makes his own stuff , If that's the case I'll take a wedge of Red from his walk in store house.

  • 0

    bass4funk

    I just don't understand why people have to go through the hassle of listing up and ordering things and waiting for them to be delivered...! I would just cycle over to Seiyu as and when I like and go Tokyu Food Show as and when I needed to. No hassle.

    That maybe fine for you, but there are items that Japan just doesn't have. Good cereal, male hygiene products, cheese (the real stuff, NOT that processed crap) and I could go on and on all day. Seiyu and Tokyu hardly carry anything worth my time. When I was living in Korea, the Costco out there would put Japan's Costco to SHAME! I never even thought about the states because I could get everything there. They have literally EVERYTHING there. Japan on the other hand, needs to catch up, I mean, really catch up

  • 0

    Zenny11

    I never knew about FBC, World Import Mart in Ikebukuro and similar places always served me well.

    Said that I am more after European than American products, so the selections of goods I would buy there or at Costco is limited.

    But the idea that because it is foreign owned that we should support him is ridiculous.

    Fully agree here.

  • -1

    stevecpfc

    Zenny1; Costco also has good stuff for the home and family.Some good oils for cooking and lots of European cheeses. You need a lot of storage space liek big fridge or freezer though as most of this stuff is in big packets/portions.

    FBC may have more stuff but the money i save by shopping around can be spent on the family and the savings are pretty high.

  • 0

    Zenny11

    stevecpfc.

    Thx, storage space is a premium here. :(

  • 0

    Zenny11

    Forgot there is a good Cheese shop in most stations here, they got a wide variety from a large range of countries.

  • 0

    tmarie

    **We can support our Gaijin Business and give these guys a lift . ** Uh, who cares if it is gaijin run? If that's the case, perhaps he could give us gaijin a discount instead of charging crazy prices as time. Some things are reasonable, others are not. I don't care about the nationality of the owner, I just want decent prices.

  • 0

    japanhand

    People who whine about Chuck, and his "high prices" probably have problems paying for additional service.

    It is like the joke from 20+ years ago. Q: "What are three words Japanese don't know?" A: "Attention K-Mart shoppers."

    Why pay someone to change the oil in a car, when it can be done by oneself? Why pay for new T-Shirts if the frayed ones can be used in winter under a turtle neck? Why purchase coke/pepsi cola when "AMERICAN Cola" can be purchased at 39yen? etc.

    1) FBC is not trying to sell to businesses. FBC is a personal import facilitator.

    2) FBC product lines are DEEP. Where else can I get Barq's, Hansen, or even A&W, DIET root beer? Beets - string, sliced, pickled, julienne style? American style Apple Sauce? and the list goes on and on.

    3) Before FBC started, it was almost impossible to find Pepsi. I was quite happy to pay the premium for the pleasure of downing an ice cold Pepsi in the summer.

    4) Imagine you live in Kochi, Shikoku. All of a sudden, your options for access to foods you love are limited.

    The great thing about Chuck, is he found a niche that was crying for food, and he filled it, AND he is willing to work with other entrepreneurs.

    I personally think he knows how to listen:

    a) whiners? - tune them out b) constructive complainers - give them all ears, and complete attention.

    Oh yea, it also helps that Chuck is a nice guy! So often we hear that "Nice guys finish last." Maybe God is watching over Chuck to make sure that doesn't happen.

  • -1

    stevecpfc

    japanhand; No you are wrong , very wrong. FBC charges too much, i used to use them a lot but instead of evolving and being more competitive they became more expensive. They have a good selection sure and have good service, but i will not pay those prices and it isn't a case of buying inferior products due to lack of cash. These days with Costco and many others having a good selection of import items (including better quality European items)at far cheper prices, why shop there?

    I guess it can be usefull if you cannot get to other places due to your location. Chuck will be a great guy to those who fill his bank account as he aint going to bite the hand that feeds.

  • 0

    tmarie

    I used them before as well. Now I can get things at various shops where I live way cheaper with no delivery charge - if I can't I shop around. Between flyingpig, tengu, meatguy, amazon, ebay... plenty of places to get the things you think only FBC sells. Times change, shops add more things, FBC isn't being competitive and while you can pay higher prices if you want, I won't.

  • 0

    keika1628

    japanhand

    You most likely run a business as do I , No point in trying to explain buy for a penny , sell for a margin ,turn a profit , but you still have to watch the customer who would pocket a bag of treats when your back was turned .

    Then, there is the damaged in transit goods that is handed over to Second Harvest which is given free and puts a smile on an orphan and on and on , Yep, we didn't start the fire.

  • 0

    tmarie

    Keika, bottom line is customers go where the prices are best along with customer service. I can buy items on the day for cheaper prices and take them home. Until FBC sells things for cheaper, people with vote with their feet. No need to be patronizing about it.

    As for damaged goods, that's part of the process when you go into business for yourself. We aren't about to feel sorry for you - more so when you look at people like Chuck who make a very good living. And perhaps you give goods, others on here volunteer time so also get to see those smiles.

    I will continue to shop around and find the best deal.

  • 0

    keika1628

    tmarie

    I know what you are saying , but a small business that starts off in someones kitchen and has to compete with the multi nationals is hard work . The small importer has to pass off the tariff onto to the customer in order to survive. The local Revenue office is a nightmare to deal with and that's after the importer has dealt with customs rummaging to clearance on the final tax settlement . Anyway I'm not having a fight with you . Happy Days.

  • 0

    tmarie

    Indeed it is but Chuck is not a small business now. He would have more customers if he dropped the prices on certain items. It is often cheaper for me to order things from amazon or ebay and have it shipped to Japan than it is to use FBC. If I can get it cheaper, I am sure Chuck can lower the prices - more so with the way the yen is now. Businesses need to decide whom they cater to and Chuck isn't catering to the average foreigner/Japanese - in my opinion. You got to be above average income to be spending lots of money at FBC.

    I can get now get Mexican taco mix, salsa, chips... at my local supermarket for cheaper than it costs for me to order it from FBC - and I don't have to wait for it. I can get other items from rakuten that yes, I do have to wait a bit but usually it comes faster.

    Like I said, some things are cheaper at FBC but Chuck isn't the only one in the game now so needs to being a bit more to the table if he isn't going to lower the price. I was thankful 13 years ago that he was around but things have changed. The business needs to change too!

  • 0

    Zenny11

    Got to agree with tmarie.

    Not saying this is true for Chuck(don't know him nor his business).

    But I seen many small start-up businesses that once they started getting regular big & regular orders, etc they started to rely more on those and started to move the business towards that direction.

    The smaller clients became less & less important as they got now bigger and more lucrative orders to fill, so if a small order got delayed, etc it was fine.

    Hard to run a business that caters for both small(private) and corporate clients, at one stage a decision has to be made as to the direction.

    That can be due to more competitors(costco, other shops) importing more and more overseas produce at larger amounts than they can do ergo cheaper.

    Example: Pies are starting to become big in japan now and I already got 2 Pie-shops in my area. Granted don't like their offerings as the fillings are not to my liking but they are coining it from local clientele.

    Same with other offerings, more and more japanese now want overseas foods and supplies and many local shops/chains are catering now for them.

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