While it may look out of sync with its surroundings, model and radio-controlled car giant Tamiya’s Plamodel Factory (Plastic Model Factory) flagship store has a happy home amid the office buildings and dining establishments of Tokyo’s Shinbashi district.

“Being in Shinbashi seemed like quite a mismatch for a store selling scale models,” says store manager Takamichi Hangai. “But there are a lot of businessmen and workers (in the area) who used to build scale models. They come in here for the nostalgia. They’re coming home.”

While most of the window displays feature Tamiya’s traditional products — models of ships, airplanes, cars and tanks — one is devoted to translucent art objects and fashion accessories and another to T-shirts and other souvenirs bearing the company’s iconic two-star, red, white and blue logo. If anything, that variety is a tip-off there is more at play here than just static scale models.

Regardless of what they come for, a lot of the store’s visitors have similar wide-eyed expressions as they take in the scope of a store that defies easy expectations.

“We have a lot of celebrities who wear our shirts on TV, who come to the store. Their fans come because of them, thinking that if celebrities they like buy our stuff maybe they will, too,” says Hangai. “So part of our brand has nothing to do with plastic models.”

Much of what helps the store evolve, however, is its customer base, not just those celebrities whose autographs line the walls of the remote-control (RC) race car cave that fills the store’s basement.

“It’s about what you can picture in your mind and enjoy making. For example, if you buy this (racing car) kit, you generally build it according to the instructions,” Hangai says. “But there are customers who aren’t like that. They say, ‘I want to take this kit and (I want to) make it into a robot, like (in the movie) ‘Transformers.'”

Although the main floor is largely devoted to model kits, parts, tools and materials, there is much more. On the shelves and interspersed among the various items for sale are engaging dioramas with eye-catching detail. These are built not by the company’s craftspeople but by customers.

“The confectionary decorations are a great example,” Hangai says, pointing to a display of model cakes, puddings and cookies that look good enough to eat.

“Originally, this clay was for use with plastic models. Because of customer feedback, we started seeing it as something else,” Hangai explains. “It’s the same with the (translucent) flower accessory materials. This idea is not something that originated with Tamiya.”

Those new products, says Hangai, are proof that Tamiya is also interacting with more women customers.

“There are so many women modelers,” he says. “In the old days, you’d see grown men, or fathers and sons, or boys on their own coming in to buy stuff. Now we get families. Girls come in because maybe their older brother makes models or boys at school do, and they don’t feel excluded from this world. They come with their families and buy models, too.”

Family groups, he said, frequently attend races organized by the shop — either for the popular mini four-wheel-drive track cars or tricked out lightning-quick RC cars that are a far cry from the company’s iconic Grasshopper, Frog and Hornet buggies that made the brand a big name in the overseas RC community in the 1980s.

“I love this job,” Hangai says. “There was one little boy, and the first time he bought a (RC) car and tried to race it, he couldn’t get the hang of it. But he kept coming back and I was able to teach him various things. As he got bigger, he finally won a championship and he thanked me.

“The kids come back and give me thank you letters and that’s such a thrill. In most stores, when somebody buys something, they don’t come back. It makes me think that there aren’t many jobs better than this one, that you can give joy to people.”

It’s not surprising that Hangai rates being a good listener as a crucial skill for his line of work.

“The ways our customers choose to enjoy themselves changes from day to day,” he says. “My job is to have a firm understanding of that, accepting it and then studying up so I can give useful advice. People are going to find new and different ways to have fun, and those aren’t being driven by suggestions from us.”

With this year’s Rugby World Cup and next year’s Tokyo Olympics, Hangai says learning to divine customers’ needs for Tamiya products with their global appeal requires even more skill.

“The number of foreign customers is increasing rapidly. That means we have to concern ourselves with the needs of overseas visitors in addition to the needs of our Japanese customers,” he says. “They are going to increase and we need to be prepared to offer them advice, too. To do that, we need an understanding of how people overseas want to make use of our products.

“It’s never about being correct or incorrect. It’s about enjoyment, that’s all you need.”

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