Having run a beach shop for eight years now, I’ve been able to observe the shopping practices of the Japanese firsthand.
My summer shop on the island, mainly stocked with accessories and beach clothing, is targeted toward women on vacation.
As I was telling my friend Nobi the other day, I am reluctant to intrude into the shopping experiences of my customers. There is nothing I like less than a pushy salesperson, or one who descends upon you as you walk in the door and then follows you around the store suggesting clothes in styles, fabrics and colors you wouldn’t be caught dead in.
Besides, how can you trust a salesperson? Surely she is going to steer you to the higher priced items or those with the highest mark-up. I prefer more of a relaxed shopping experience. I know what I like, thank you.
I take the same hands-off approach to my own shop and just hover around the periphery in case the customer has any questions.
Shopping is often designated as a “hobby” by Japanese high school and university students. It can turn into a full-time lifestyle if they get a good enough job to be able to pay for their habit. This is not to say they spend wildly or without discretion. Quite the opposite. Japanese women are the most careful shoppers in the world.
Upon entering my store on the beach, most women already have their wallets out and in their hands, which indicates a willingness to buy. For most of them, the decision to buy something has already been made. It’s more a question of what to buy.
But once inside the store, you’ll almost immediately hear a shriek of “kawaii!” as they gravitate to something they like and proceed to try it on.
From there, approval by their peers is the next step before they can purchase. “Kawaiikunai?” (Don’t you think it’s cute?) they ask their friends. If the friends confer (and they always do), a purchase is made. But wait, not so fast!
First, the buyer must go through an entire “which one should I purchase?” scenario, which can take, believe it or not, 10-15 minutes. It is not unusual for a girl, accompanied by her friends, to stand in front of an item for even 30 minutes, going back and forth between two bracelets, the pros and cons of each, trying to decide which style or color is best. And some of these bracelets cost only ¥300.
If friends are not around to ask for approval, a shopper will often ask me my opinion. “Which looks better?”
I am not comfortable telling people what I think they should buy. I believe the customer knows best what clothes she has at home to match the item she wants to buy. And only she knows how often and where she will wear the item.
Therefore she should purchase what she likes, not what I or her peers like. I’ve witnessed girls bullied into buying a color or style they didn’t like, just because their friends came to a consensus that the metallic green bracelet with a tint of moonstone blue was a better color for her than the peach frond fuzz colored one. My bet is that even though the girl bought what her friends liked, she’ll never wear the bracelet because deep down, she doesn’t like metallic green with a glint of moonstone blue because it reminds her of the color of dung beetles.
“But that’s not your problem,” says my friend Nobi.
He’s right, of course.
“They want a personal experience. These days in Japan, shopping is becoming more American-style, where you go to a store, choose some stuff and plop it down at the register and a cashier rings it up. But Japanese still like to have a relationship with the shop owner. Especially a small shop like this.”
He’s right again.
I don’t know how many colors there are in the color spectrum, but according to young Japanese girls, there are a few thousand, most of which I cannot even see. Comparing different shades of the same color can be exasperating for even a seasoned shopper, who can visually scroll through her jewelry collection in her mind like photos on an iPhone. “I have a bracelet in this shade of Avendonner Blue already,” she says to me. “But this has a nice accent bead in Meticulously Matilda Red. Do you think that would differentiate it enough from the Avendonner Blue one I already have?”
How am I supposed to know? Avendonner Blue sounds more like a species of whale to me. I try to agree with her while attempting, unsuccessfully, to switch the subject from colors to whales, a subject I know a little more about.
The woman is polite, nods her head to show she agrees that sperm whales are surely the most fantastic whales in the ocean, and takes out her mobile phone to take a photo of the two bracelets. She sends the photo to a friend whom she is now texting. Surely she’ll get an honest opinion from her!
While awaiting her friend’s text message response, I try to keep the shopkeeper-customer relationship going. “How about those belugas?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” she says, now browsing through the most popular item in the shop: ¥300 rope bracelets. In English, we sometimes call these “friendship” bracelets. In Japan, they’re called misanga. Before you put one on you make a wish. If the bracelet falls off, your wish will not come true. Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times that everyone is wishing upon ¥300 bracelets, but I sell hundreds of rope bracelets every week.
After another round of taking photos and texting, the woman decides on one misanga bracelet to accompany the Avendonner Blue one with the accent bead in Meticulously Matilda Red. After 30 minutes of shopping, she hands over ¥800.
“I come to the beach once a year,” she says. “Every year I buy something from your shop.”
Only then do I notice she is wearing a necklace she bought here last year. “Do you remember me?” she asks. “Of course I do,” I say, smiling. “Thank you for always stopping by my shop.” The woman is obviously pleased. “Good luck with the whales,” she says.
Nobi would be proud.