Reining supreme in retail: why Japan remains unbeatable

5 Jun 2018

When it comes to pleasing customers, Japan has totally raised the bar by overservicing and adding extras to make shopping a memorable, interactive experience. The rest of the world simply cannot compete with the little touches that come naturally in Japanese culture, which elsewhere can seem contrived and pushy. Offers of assistance are delicate, the shop giveaways are actually good and the attention to detail in design is second to none. Here are a few of our favorites:


Tsutaya Daikanyama, Tokyo
Winner at the World Architecture Festival, Tsutaya Daikanyama bookshop in Tokyo is famed for its clever branding, as the entire bookshop is made from tessellated ‘Ts’ for Tsutaya (a retail chain). Inside, its books cover everything from the traditional to the obscure - dig for dusty treasures on kimono histories or manga. Beyond the books, the store houses other chains such as Starbucks and Family Mart, but these are mixed in with smaller independent stores for everything from cameras to bikes. What we love is that every stage of buying a book is covered; customers can end the day in Anjin lounge for a post-shop cocktail and a page-turning session.

©Kyodo News

Ginza 6, Tokyo
The pinnacle of high-end retail, Ginza 6 stands as a tower of premium shopping in the capital. Whatever the amount of splurge, any shopper will feel spoilt for choice with 241 brands under one roof. On the fourth floor, world-famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has left her mark with a polka dot and pumpkin pop-up. Higher up you’ll find a food court chock-a-block with Japanese delicacies, whether you’re after sushi or uni. For those looking to crank it up a notch, take note of the concierge service, stylists on hand and classy lounge. The fact that the building’s grandeur is aptly reflected in the service available makes it an all-round winner.


Pigment, Tokyo
Heralded an ‘art supply laboratory,’ Tokyo’s Pigment is much more than a paint shop as it acts as a platform for local artists and students to make connections in the industry. It’s worth browsing the 4,000 pigments for the beautiful poetic names alone; spot ‘Nickel Yellow’ and ‘Green Jasper powder’ amongst the technicolour rows. The in-house workshop events aim to encourage creatives to embrace traditional techniques, led by art professors, creative directors and prestigious manufacturers. Most importantly, Pigment have tapped into a niche group who remain obsessed with old craftsmanship despite the invasion of newfangled technologies in the art industry. For them, this is heaven.

©Japan House

Japan House, London
Looking beyond Tokyo, Japan House will open this summer on Kensington High Street, which will present an opportunity for retailers to learn from the masters firsthand. Spread over three floors, Japan House will offer a temporary exhibition gallery, events space, library, retail space, and Japanese restaurant AKIRA. Welcome, who are behind social cultural retail spaces in Japan, are in charge of the retail space called The Shop.

So what are the top tips for emulating Japanese retail flair? Saeko Kato, The Shop’s curator, offers an insight:

What can retailers learn from the Japanese approach to customer service?

At the core of what we do is a ‘social retail experience’; we see the places as communication tools for a community. We also build up a good relationship with our customers; we grow and develop together. When they give us advice, we listen. As for the products, the motto for our interior design store in Tokyo, Cibone, is ‘New Antiques, New Classics.’ We want people to treasure the things they buy; the stock we sell in Japan House have been sourced with the same ethos in mind.

How does the ‘social retail’ approach impact the experience?

We put on events and workshops where a designer can talk with customers about a new product they are working on. Through this, we offer a unique platform for a social experience between the maker and the shopper.

What special details have you included in the design/layout?

Designer Katayama Masamichi’s spatial concept is based on the ‘tokonoma’ (an empty, raised alcove in a Japanese home) where guests can admire displays of art such as a hanging scroll (‘kakemono’) or seasonal flowers (‘ikebana’). The design blurs the lines between a shop and a gallery, where products are displayed in huge glass booths like in a museum. However, guests can walk into these glass cases, and workshops/demonstrations will also occasionally take place inside.

How does technology play a part in this?

Some of the products we sell, for example a wooden toy called a ‘kendama’, will not be familiar to visitors in London, so we’ve created videos to explain.

©Daike Mills

What is it that you do so well?

Definitely social retail, i.e. creating memorable experiences that are much more than the conventional meaning of shopping. One of my favorite workshops was with a Japanese fashion designer, Yamagata Yoshikazu, who curated a ‘wearable house’ exhibition at the museum. We produced a workshop for children to make houses out of cardboard boxes and then wear them for a runway fashion show. Art and retail - or fashion creation and retail - are usually separate, but through this we merged the two.

What key skills will you teach your sales staff?
In Japan, wrapping is offered free of charge and is done quickly, beautifully and with very little use of tape. We’ve had specially designed wrapping paper made for The Shop at Japan House London and wrapping will be one of the key skills I teach our staff.