Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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3 Responses to “Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail”

  1. Chuck F Says:

    Rather interesting post, as the two seem to be highly contradicting, wondering if you can tie this back into the charisma clerks post a bit, as you started to do with the Tokyo Girls Collection point.

    Potpourri of questions here to see if it can help with that tie/ any answers/ more theories you can give that aren’t already self-evident in your article would be great.

    Would it be possible for one of these “Rude clerks” at Comme des Garçons/etc to be a Charisma Clerk? In buying from the shop, you get the distinct privilege of paying money to this special guy who is so good at wearing clothing/styling that he’s been featured in several magazines, so you shuldn’t expect him to be nice. Being nice would kill the allusion of the clerks special status?

    Or are Charisma Clerks generally found in stores aimed at younger/less sophisticated/ perhaps less cash to spare buyers? The type of buyers that would be looked down upon at Comme des Garcons? Whereas your older specifically targeted more sophisticated buyers assumedly wouldn’t care about what magazines the clerk they are buying from has been in?

    Just to confirm your tokyo girls collection point: Are we looking at this more as a smaller brands/stores utilize chrasima clerks to get exposure and sell the products, and high-end world renowned brands use the we have a marketing budget, we don’t need charisma staff for free media, let’s be rude to everyone not special to make us seem elite strategy?

    If this is so, I wonder what it says about the psychology/social background of young folks who buy the clothing that their best friends/the clerks in the magazine they relate to would wear, vs buying what elite people who aren’t too nice would wear.

    Since you brought up the mid-80’s as when the rudeness strategy became mainstream strategy, what year are we looking at for charisma clerks to have really arrived on the scene?

    Thanks as always for the large brain Mr.Marx.

  2. W. David Marx Says:

    Or are Charisma Clerks generally found in stores aimed at younger/less sophisticated/ perhaps less cash to spare buyers? The type of buyers that would be looked down upon at Comme des Garcons?

    Yes, I think that’s basically it. It strikes me that the “charisma clerk” phenomena revolves around “accessible” stores like select shops and shops in 109 etc., because the media that creates these clerks is very obviously targeted to “young people.” CdG or Issey Miyake etc. will supply clothes to magazines with younger-readers, but they do not play the game – i.e., supplying staff to become charisma clerks, paying for tie-up photo spreads, or trying to make it easier in any way for young people to buy their clothes. All these things are clearly beneath them. (Note that the high-end, not artsy luxury brands do indulge in a lot of tie-up.)

    The “rude” brands know that the kids who want to buy “elite” clothing will do so without any assistance.

    , what year are we looking at for charisma clerks to have really arrived on the scene?

    Good question. My guess is the mid-1990s, but I am sure there were traces of it beforehand. Certainly the more famous charisma clerks like Morimoto Yoco came out of the late 90s.

  3. Michael Says:

    I went to the Aoyama CdG store and found the staff quite helpful. As well as the CdG corner at the Kyoto Isetan, we chatted for ages. I found a coldness though at Shinjuku Isetan and the dudes at the 10 Corso Como store could have been less frigid I admit.