I recently returned from an extended vacation in Japan and probably heard the phase "arigatou gozaimasu” (a more formal way of saying “thank you very much” in Japanese) 500 times while I was there. The Japanese people are extremely polite and very focused on providing the best customer service possible. You hear arigatou gozaimasu when you walk into a business establishment, when you purchase anything, when you leave, even when you walk by employees as an extension of saying “hello”. In many establishments, employees even line up and bow when you leave.
So, what does this have to do with Commerce? Thanking your customers goes to the very heart of commerce success. When you know that shop owners, servers, and flight attendants, train conductors, bartenders and restauranteurs sincerely mean it when they say arigatou gozaimasu, you begin to realize how much the Japanese culture values people treating other people well. It’s not just saying “thank you” for a purchase, it’s a “thank you” for being interested in their business and the goods they sell.
Retail commerce is thriving in Japan. Yes, even brick and mortar stores are packed with customers making purchases. It’s an experience rather than a mission. You see people carrying many small shopping bags, each with neatly packaged goods. As people shop, they are more focused on the task at hand and their current surroundings than in the US. I noticed far fewer people staring at their cellphones as they walked through the shopping areas.
The business districts in every town I visited, whether tiny mountain villages or big cities like Kyoto, were thriving. The picture above is in the main shopping district in Kyoto, that has more than 500 shops spread along a several block shopping area. Adjacent to this is the restaurant district, which houses something like 800 small restaurants and bars. Families spend the day walking the narrow streets of Japan, many decked out in traditional kimonos that are rented for the day. Hundreds of small shops are intermingled with tiny restaurants. Chefs prepare foods including skinning and cleaning fish right on the street with crowds watching their preparation techniques.
I’ve seen recent articles about the resurgence of local retail versus the decline in large department stores and malls here in the US. Why is that? I’d say it’s probably for the same reason that Japanese brick and mortar is thriving – superior customer service, knowing your customers and what they are likely to purchase, and going the extra mile to ensure customer satisfaction.
Merchandising is also of the utmost importance in Japan. Packaging is exquisite. Shelf presentation is always precise and well thought out. An extreme example of this happened at the airport. My flight home was delayed by four hours. United Airlines employees went out and purchases McDonald’s sandwiches and burgers for passengers. They put them out on tables near the boarding area. I watched them rearrange the tables and the way the sandwiches were organized about ten times over the course of an hour to ensure efficiency and organization in the way they were presented.
The same thing happens in a store, if you pick something up and look at it, within minutes an employee will discreetly come over and make sure that it has been replaced in its previous state.
In summary, take care of your customers. Anticipate their needs. Say arigatou gozaimasu every chance you get. It will go a long way!