Shopping and shop clerks in Japan

(Edit: I hate it when posts decide to delete everything I say.)

The shopping culture I’m familiar with in the United States is fairly laid-back in terms of customer service. On an average day when you walk into a shop, particularly a small one, you get greeted like this:

Staff: Hi, how you doing today?
You: Fine!
Staff: Great, well if ya need anything just let us know.
You: Okay!
Staff: *Promptly disappears until you need to buy something*

So imagine my surprise the first time I walked into a clothing shop here in Japan and was greeted like this:

Staff: Welcome to our store!
Me: Uh, thanks? *Starts browsing*
Staff: *Sidles up to me* Are you looking for this season’s t-shirts?
Me: I’m just browsing, thanks.
Staff: Well, that shirt you’re holding now would look cute on you! Want to try it on?
Me: Um.
Staff: Just come this way, please. *Drags me to a fitting room, all smiles*
Me: *Goes along with it* I’m not sure if-
Staff: *Shoves me in, closes curtain, promptly three seconds later* How is it? Does it fit?
Me: Hold your horses-
Staff: Let me get you another shirt with a similar style you’d like!

And so on.

Being followed around a shop is something that I am very unused to. I associate it with one of two things: classy shops, or staff thinking I’m about to rob their store.

It’s not only clothing stores that do this, however; as you walk through Japan you’ll be surrounded by shop clerks determined to encourage you to buy something from them. Restaurants will make their staff stand outside and call out to couples and families who walk past. Contact lenses shops will hand out free packets of tissues with little advertisements in them showing you how to get to their store.

Neither style of running a store is bad; the former is nice for those who like to browse in peace. The latter is convenient if you have something specific in mind to buy that day. The casual feeling of the first style can make you feel ignored if the staff member in question goes off to play on their phone rather than help you; the second style can make you feel overwhelmed and for some of us, that can mean being guilted into buying something we didn’t want or need.

So to those who are coming to Japan who are used to a more relaxed means of sales in stores, keep in mind when you go to your souvenir shops or restaurants that you may well be pushed out of your comfort zone. Even a well-timed, “I’m fine, just browsing,” might be ignored.

But why? Why so pushy in the first place?

There’s a concept in Japan known as omotenashi (おもてなし). It loosely translates to “Japanese hospitality”. The basic idea is to be able to read between the lines of any given interaction with the hope that it will lead you to providing better service to a guest or customer. This often is shown in the way that hair salon workers will follow you out after you’ve had your hair cut to thank you, bowing all the way. Another example would be how visiting someone’s home will end up with them insisting they have nothing special to offer you while pouring a cup of expensive tea reserved just for guests.

But omotenashi goes deeper than merely providing thorough customer care; indeed, many times the provider of this hospitality is determined to give it before the guest or customer realizes they want it. So staff will alert you to deals on clothing the instant you show the slightest interest in their products. If you’re a foreigner, you may be asked to show your passport in some shops in order to get a discount on goods before you even have any goods in hand to purchase.

It can all be a little overwhelming; sometimes I have to brace myself when walking into a shop because I know the staff will try to push additional things on me and I only want to buy one particular item. Keep this in mind, and take your time when going through stores; the smarter shops will take the hint after a while. And if any of it makes you uncomfortable like it does me, you always have the option to turn heel and find another place to buy your stuff.

One thing I’ve noticed is that bigger places like AEON Mall tends to be better about leaving you to shop in peace, so look around and find a shopping experience that suits you.

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