Why do Japanese shop assistants know so little about their goods?

I’m hardly the first person to mention this, but I’m still regularly flummoxed by this huge hole in the otherwise incomparable Japanese service ethic. A couple of examples:

The girl I was buying my mobile phone from looking up the answers to my questions in the exact same booklet that she’d given me earlier.

A guy in Yodobashi replying to my questions about the differences between two irons with the shrug and then with a simple “Oh yes, you’re right” when I pointed out that the cheaper one rather worryingly had no temperature control. And the conversation ended there…

I know Japanese students don’t ask many questions, but I often read that Japanese consumers are some of the most demanding in the world. Doesn’t that include asking questions, and if so why aren’t the staff prepared to answer them?

Maybe they believe that giving no information is better than giving wrong information. Or maybe apologising takes up all their training time and using those apologising phrases makes up for a complete lack of info…

Why would anyone shop in Don Quijote?

Despite its claim to be “geki an”, you can get most of the stuff cheaper elsewhere. However, it could be the fact that there are usually a couple of real bargains hiding in its chaotic set up that make it “fun” to shop there, the adjective that my students almost always use to describe it. There are also a few things that you don’t see (much?) elsewhere. Personally, it is my definition of shopping hell.

Why was there a flurry of expansion in imported food shops?

It certainly wasn’t because there was an overwhelming demand from Japanese consumers for Tim Tams and Haribo sweets, because most Japanese still have no idea what those things are. I’m guessing that the main reason was that by buying from importers the shops could miss out those famous Japanese middlemen and so ramp up profits.

Why are there still local electronics shops in Japan?

The products are sometimes almost twice the price of superstores like Yamada Denki (which are already overpriced), and you see exactly the number of customers you would expect in them, that being the case. As in places like Italy small shop owners in Japan get so many tax benefits that they hardly need to sell anything, but electronics shops seem like an extreme case of uselessness. Someone cleared this one up for me a few weeks ago with the information that they make their money from being service engineers, which also explains why they have the names of one of the big Japanese electronics companies (usually Panasonic, formerly Matsushita) outside.

Why are huge fridges the next big thing in Japan? Second attempt

First, another reason why it is a mystery- countries that have huge fridges usually also buy in bulk, which is very rare in Japan where most household shopping is done on a bike and Costco type shops have never really taken off.

My latest conclusion is that it’s partly to make up for the lack of convenient shelf and cupboard space in the average Japanese kitchen, leading to telling my mother in law that it shouldn’t go in the fridge (Marmite! Shortbread!) leading to complete mystery as to where to put it.

Although I have seen similar things in other Japanese houses, I am perfectly aware that most of my insight into Japan comes from one not especially typical family, so others’ ideas very gratefully received. My previous attempt to explain this is part of Japanese Gadgets and Technology Explained

Why are there so many vending machines? Second attempt

Shops are traditionally clustered in shopping steets (shoutengai) rather than being corner shops, and even now some posher suburbs have no shops for miles

Why does no one understand when I talk about Baskin Robbins?

This is one I’d been wondering about on and off for a while, then by chance came across the answer to.

According to Confucius Lives Next Door,the company chose to call itself “31″ in Japan as that is easier to pronounce, although as in Japanese it is written as サーティワン (saati wan) they were at best half successful. Like most written English, the words Baskin Robbins, which although not the official name are plastered all over the stores, are totally ignored

Why does a big box of cornflakes in Japan have the writing and picture sideways?

Smaller shelves in the supermarkets??

Not sure why it looks sooooo odd to me either, but might need therapy to work that one out…

Why do so many small local shops have automatic doors?

I hadn’t noticed this until I read it in Tokyo by Donald Ritchie, but it certainly does seem to be true. He doesn’t bother asking why, but I’d go for:

- Electronic = modern= showing you are successful  counts even more in small rural towns

- The original doors were sliding too, so it’s not such a big change

- The reason for the original and new sliding doors is that there is no room to open them either into the shop or into the street

Why do electronics shops like Bic Camera stock alcohol?

And pharmacies! This is a sure sign that the profit margins are as huge as in drugs and consumer electronics, so Kirin and Sapporo have obviously decided not to compete on the price of beer, something that the availability of cheaper happoshu conveniently hides. An uncompetitive practice that is very close to my heart…

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