Whenever people talk about Japan the two things they will always mention are vending machines and shopping. Perhaps it is a testament to the preoccupation of modern society with consumerism and convenience, that this is the thing most readily associated with this incredibly complex and diverse culture. I have spent the last week looking around Tokyo in some of the busiest and trendiest suburbs, as well as some of the smaller, residential suburbs, to see just what the difference is between shopping in Tokyo and shopping in Adelaide.
There are vending machines on every street corner and everywhere you look there are stores, billboards and hawkers all determined to sell you something. But the one thing that doesn’t seem to get described as often as everything else, and definitely not as often as it should be, is the service. It is truly an incredible thing, the lengths to which these people go to ensure that their customers are treated well.
It starts from the second you walk in the door, and whether it be a small cafe near the train station or the swankiest department store, you will be greeted by a cheerful “Irashaimasse!” (“Welcome!”) by one or more of the shop assistants. Granted the more upscale the place is the more cheerful and sincere the greeting will be, but the effort is still made no matter where you go. As I’m not fluent in Japanese, my knowledge being limited mainly to greetings and basic numbers, I expected to have a lot of problems getting around on a day to day basis, let alone when I wanted to buy things. And while I have had some problems, in most places this was enough to get me by.
When you buy anything, from an expensive dress to a pair of socks, they will thank you and bow while taking it from you to wrap it up. The paying process is also very ritualistic, which involves lots of what I assume is them reading out and confirming totals. You place the money in a little tray, and they pass you back your change with both hands and a little bow. If, for example, you buy a pair of earrings and a top, they’ll put the earrings in a smaller bag and then put it in the bigger bag with the top so they don’t get lost. A lot of places wrap each individual thing up in paper or plastic bags for added presentation, and when they finally put the things in the main bag they tape it shut with special label stickers and pass it to you with both hands while bowing and thanking you again. In more high end stores they even carry your bag to the exit from you and bow you out of the store to choruses of “Arigato gosaimashita!” (“Thank you very much!”) from every store assistant within earshot.
It’s a totally different experience from shopping in Adelaide, and while the little touches can make you feel like a princess, it can have its drawbacks too. The attentiveness can be a bit intimidating, especially when they’re rattling off questions or trying to explain things and you just have no idea what they’re saying. When they don’t have your size, or the knee high boots just won’t close over your non-asian calves, they apologise so profusely that you can feel very awkward. The purchasing process can have its moments too, for instance if they bow you out of the shop it can make it hard to go back in and continue browsing. For those eco-minded shoppers out there, the amount of packaging they use for the smallest of items can seem excessive and unnecessary.
Overall though, the experience is a good one. The service is on a level of the top boutiques and department stores found in Adelaide, except that it extends even to the smallest convenience store. Moreover, despite the language barrier every effort has been made by every store assistant I have come across to help me out as much as they can, no matter how small the purchase. This really does achieve their main goal of a strong positive image and a returning customer. Perhaps more establishments could learn from the Japanese, and redeem the benefits of making service a priority, no matter their product.