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Staff-free shopping

Japan’s shift to online shopping, accelerated by two years of on-again, off-again state of emergencies, has made the average shopper realize how nice it is to browse in peace. The country’s customer service is highly lauded, especially by first-time visitors, but we can all agree it can feel a bit intrusive when you are not in the mood to be waited on quite so attentively.

Enter the age of the staffless shop. It’s an idea that has popped up in fashion several times, but never became a permanent concept on any scale, outside of the odd clothes-selling vending machine.

At Mujin no Fukuya, customers are free to enter 24/7, try on anything they like and then pay using a ticket machine. | MUJINNOFUKUYA
At Mujin no Fukuya, customers are free to enter 24/7, try on anything they like and then pay using a ticket machine. | MUJINNOFUKUYA

The success story that has made people take notice has been vintage clothing chain Mujin no Fukuya, literally “Unattended Clothes Shop.” Founded in August 2020 from a tiny Nakano location, there are now four branches, including one in the Shinjuku Alta department store. The original concept is that customers are free to enter 24/7, try on anything they like and then pay using a ticket machine, much like what you find at ramen shops. Prices are indicated by the color of the hanger and are mostly under ¥5,000, although clothes remade by the chain creep up toward the ¥10,000 mark.

With barely any security except basic closed-circuit TV cameras, you may wonder why the shop hasn’t been looted yet. It turns out that people can be trusted, and the first store was profitable within its first month of opening. The 24-hour contactless shopping experience, combined with being able to actually try on clothes in peace, fit the customer base’s needs, and vintage clothes — already a bit rough around the edges — don’t lose much value from rough handling. Feedback is handled analogously through a guest book by the entrance, where customers can write messages and requests. If you want to take a look before you go, the inside of the Nakano shop is livestreamed on YouTube.

This setup might work for vintage items, but what about new clothes for more exacting customers? Even department stores are trying a more hands-off approach. Sogo Yokohama is trialing an Outer Fitting Center in its flagship store through Nov. 15. The space covers men’s and women’s fashion across 33 brands, and allows customers to freely browse and try on any of the coats and jackets without any sales staff intervention. Now this may not sound like that much of a revolution, but in department store terms this is practically anarchy.

After market research revealed many customers voiced strong discomfort around interacting with sales staff, the department store is trialing a staff-free shopping experience. | SOGO YOKOHAMA
After market research revealed many customers voiced strong discomfort around interacting with sales staff, the department store is trialing a staff-free shopping experience. | SOGO YOKOHAMA

Sogo’s customer research revealed the vast majority of customers would only buy a coat they had tried on, thus ruling out online shopping, but around 50% voiced strong discomfort around interacting with sales staff. This may be a temporary phenomenon that waxes and wanes with the pandemic, but it may also allude to a preference for a less-scripted shopping experience.

High fashion, where customers usually prize personalized customer service, is not exempt from this trend, either. Some of the biggest names in the Tokyo avant-garde — including Mikio Sakabe, Jenny Fax and Keisuke Yoshida — are also trialing a contactless approach with a “Watch Room” concept.

The shop is set up like an art installation depicting a surveillance office, and runs until Nov. 28 at the Three Treasures space in Shibuya. You need to make an appointment in advance, but other than that you are free to browse and try on clothes alone before proceeding to order by scanning a QR code.

Mujin no Fukuya: bit.ly/mujinfukuya-tw; Sogo Yokohama: sogo-seibu.jp/yokohama; Three Treasures: bit.ly/threetreasures-ig

Cup Noodle is marking its 50-year anniversary with a fashion collaboration on sale at Parco | PARCO
Cup Noodle is marking its 50-year anniversary with a fashion collaboration on sale at Parco | PARCO

Not-so-surprising collaborations

Elsewhere, Tokyo fashion is desperate to find the most surprising collaboration it can. The days of being shocked by pop culture and fashion joining forces are well and truly over — now it’s the norm for any successful cultural commodity, not the rare exception.

The least surprising is that character designer Toshio Ishizaka (aka Sushio), of anime “Kill la Kill” fame, is launching a fashion brand, Solid Line. Cup Noodle is marking its 50-year anniversary with a fashion collaboration on sale at Parco. Italian restaurant chain Saizeriya is teaming up with Punyus and its creator Naomi Watanabe for a capsule collection — something obviously only a matter of time. The only true shock of the month was Keevir teaming up with Nippon TV for a surprisingly good backstage TV-crew-themed collection.

The point is that people want to incorporate their interests into their wardrobes in a very literal way. There is a screen of irony at times, but also something refreshingly honest about displaying what you enjoy so publicly.

Solid Line: solidline.tokyo/jp; Parco x Cup Noodle: parco.jp/cupnoodle; Punyus x Saizeriya: bit.ly/saizeriya-punyus; Keevir x Nippon TV: keevir.com

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