As it’s the season for presents, I find myself hitting up the usual haunts for the majority of my stuff. For wrapping paper and goofy “lol Japan” gifts, I head to a one hundred yen store. For food, I gather ingredients at import shops. For clothes… Haha seriously no clothes are boring presents.
But once in a while I see something in my bag, left over from months prior. A gift from a student who heard I once wandered into a department store to check things out and decided it was my favorite store ever (it’s not). A little envelope of gift vouchers, only usable in one location. And I decide to pay it forward by buying something from said store.
Preparation for invading the shop this time included dressing up in nicer than usual clothes- slacks instead of jeans, a sweater instead of a sweatshirt, shoes instead of sneakers. I made sure I had enough cash to cover the cost of what I’d buy, just in the off-chance that the vouchers wouldn’t work. Finally, off I went.
Department stores in Japan are staffed by polite folks in uniforms and very white, clean gloves and little hats that greet you in full keigo (formal Japanese) when you approach them. These days, they often have some staff that speak English, so if you go and are in need of assistance do go to the information desk! In my case, I avoided eye contact and marched for the escalators, up to my goal: the interior living floor.
Up, and up I went, past clothes meant for women, young women, children, men, sports, and all manner of toys. When I reached the appropriate floor, I dodged yet another polite uniform-wearer handing out tissue advertisements and booked it for the kitchen goods.
I was greeted with the usual “Welcome!” from the staff as I wound my way through low shelves, careful not to bump into anything. The cheapest cup I saw started at 29 bucks–nothing that would break the bank, but the 1,200 dollar versions certainly could! As someone who normally walks at breakneck speed, it was a struggle to copy the other customers, slowing down to a snails’ pace while inspecting the goods.
Plates, cups, frying pans, the number of goods went on. I avoided the areas with minimal decoration and goods–sure signs that the things there would cost me my firstborn.
Fortunately, it didn’t take me too long before I found something appropriately fancy and boring as a present–a set of dinner plates with a simple design that my friend could theoretically use for various occasions.
Now was the difficult part: flagging down staff who would help me buy it.
I hovered for a few minutes, because I’m awkward and also if you hover and look uncertain for long enough people often come to help you without you having to do anything. There was no such luck, however–while there was staff nearby, the only two who weren’t busy seemed engrossed in conversing with each other. They were clearly keeping an eye on me, as I saw one of them glancing at me every few seconds, but neither made a move to help me.
Right. Time to put on my Customer Persona.
Taking a deep breath, I approached them both, aiming for the older of the two ladies. “Excuse me, I would like to make a purchase,” I said.
Her eyes got big, and I could see in both their expressions the thought: we have made a mistake ignoring this one. “Of course, thank you very much,” she said, using the polite honorifics. “What would you like to purchase?”
I led her over to the appropriate dishes, ascertained they did indeed come in a set and not separately, and confirmed I wanted to purchase it. “I have some gift vouchers I’d like to use, too,” I added.
She fluttered her hands. “Just a moment! Why don’t you have a seat and relax while we prepare everything for you?”
I agreed, and this time I was the one led over to a table. She pulled the chair out for me and I had a seat. The older lady fluttered off to prepare things. The younger one hovered, watching uncertainly, while I played with my phone.
Soon enough, I was presented with a fancy box and a bag. “Is this a gift?” the older woman inquired.
“It is,” I answered, and she produced a second bag for the goods–one she carefully folded and set into the original bag, where the dishes were also placed.
The transaction was a series of delicate placing of bills on a little tray, counting out the change, and eventually, I was given my goods and receipt.
“Thank you for your purchase,” the older lady said, offering a bow as I got to my feet.
I thanked them, and headed out with my bag on full display.
Other uniformed staff members, who had avoided me on my way out, spotted the heavy bag and the receipt in my hand, and came forward.
“Thank you very much!” they said, one by one, as I passed.
I was relieved when I finally escaped.
As someone who grew up middle-class in the U.S. where most service I received was along the lines of, “Let me know if you need help *disappears forever*”, having people wait on you like this can be overwhelming. It feels very like a peek into another world in terms of how things work.
That’s not to say you don’t get top service in other parts of Japan- you get it even walking into a convenience store, after all! But when I go into places where I can expect to drop a sizable amount of cash- walking into an apartment agency, a department store, whatever-the atmosphere changes.
You’re often ushered to a seat, and in many cases offered a cup of green tea while you wait to be serviced. People wear crisp uniforms and suits, and the motions they go through are that much more obviously deliberate and paced. It’s a fascinating thing to watch, for someone who people watches on the regular.
What’s it like for you when you go into Japanese (or other) department stores? When have you felt such an atmospheric change in how you were treated? How did you handle it?