Visitors to Japan are, almost without exception, gushing in their praise of the country’s service culture. I can see their point: go to any half-decent restaurant in Tokyo and you will be served in a friendly way, your (generally excellent) food will arrive quickly and you will get an instant apology if anything is wrong. Shops, too, try to give the utmost in attention to their customers, and I have to admit that sales assistants are in general far more knowledgeable than their counterparts in the UK. Those working in the large electronics stores, for example, often know more about products they’re selling than the people who made them.
As good as the overall level of service is, though, I’m not keen on shopping for clothes in Japan: far too many stores expect their staff to relentlessly hound customers from the outset, instead of simply offering a cheerful “If you need any help, let me know”. The moment I take a casual glance at something – a tie, perhaps, or a pair of jeans – I often receive an inane comment about that item being a) new, b) very nice, or c) available in many other colours.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may say. Nothing at all, at least not when I’ve asked for advice, but when it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME I pick something up, it’s maddening.*
Generally speaking – and I don’t believe I’m alone here – I like to browse in my own good time, and I hate feeling any pressure to buy. When I worked in retail I found that the more a sales assistant “assisted” a male customer without his tacit consent, the less likely the assistant was to make a sale. The best tactic was to maintain a respectful distance and be ready for the moment when the customer asked for help. It might seem counterintuitive, especially when working on commission, but it worked very well for me.
Another tactic that I’ve seen employed here, with limited success, is the scare. This is when a sales assistant suggests that an item is likely to sell out if the customer doesn’t buy it immediately. Often the item in question has been hanging on a rail, in full public view, for the past two months. Unsurprisingly, the customer often walks away.
Finally, there is the outright lying. I’ve seen many assistants tell an unsure customer that something fits perfectly well, or is a great colour for their skin tone, just to make a sale. Of course, both parties are happy for a while: the assistant has won his commission and the customer thinks he looks the business in his new lime-green chinos. But when “Kermit”, as his co-workers now call him, next goes shopping, he’s unlikely to buy any more chinos from the shop that sold him a pair of stinkers. And it’s unlikely that he’ll recommend that shop to his friends, either.
In conclusion, a bit less of the hard sell, and a bit more straight talking, would lead to much happier male customers.
(* As a side note, I once bought a pair of socks from a Paul Smith concession in a Shinjuku department store. The next time I visited it – six months later – I was greeted with “Thank you for buying those socks last time.” Creepy as eff!)