Supermarket on wheels to the rescue

"Hello, hello! Mobile supermarket truck here. Today a package of eggs is ¥77 (S$16)." With this announcement, a truck arrived and parked in a corner of Tama New Town, a large housing complex in Tama, western Tokyo.

The supermarket on wheels visits this location once a week for about an hour. When I dropped by for a look, about 50 elderly people were waiting for it.

The four-ton truck equipped with refrigerators and freezers carries about 500 perishable goods, frozen food and daily items, and sells them at the same prices as shops.

Major supermarket Ito-Yokado launched the service in late July, its first time in Tokyo, and its third nationwide following Nagano Prefecture from 2011 and Hokkaido from June.

Elderly people who do not have cars and cannot travel to distant supermarkets are referred to as "shopping refugees." The increasing number of them has become a social concern.

With about 9 million shopping refugees nationwide, according to an estimate by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, major supermarket and convenience store operators have started to focus on mobile sales.

The situation is especially severe in Tama New Town, despite being in Tokyo, where relatively few young people have taken up residence since baby boomers moved there in the 1970s.

Many shopping refugees are thought to live there, as some areas do not have a supermarket within walking distance and there are many hills that stand as barriers to elderly pedestrians.

Masaji Miyazaki, 74, lives with his wife in the complex. "We used to take the bus three times a week to go shopping. It is convenient if a mobile supermarket, which offers a wide variety of perishable goods, comes regularly, even once a week," he said.

Ito-Yokado is considering dispatching mobile stores to other locations.