Elevator operator Yuria Nagamoto works at Takashimaya department store in Tokyo. Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato
lifestyle

Japan invests in service industry, reshaping its legendary hospitality

16 Comments
By Stanley White

Japan's capital expenditure boom is shifting to the services sector, stirring fears that self-checkout systems and software will take the human touch out of omotenashi, the country's vaunted commitment to hospitality.

The economic forces at work are undeniable. The working-age population is forecast to shrink by about a third in the next half century, and companies simply cannot hire enough workers.

Turning to automation raises productivity and removes a bottleneck to economic growth - but marks a retreat from a services-oriented culture where the customer is king.

"The level of omotenashi depends on where you shop, but regardless, we place a lot of emphasis on face-to-face interaction," Naoki Kobayashi, 52, a sales manager at a telecommunications company, said after buying drinks from a store in northern Tokyo that had no staff. "We also have a shrinking population, so I can understand why some retailers have to change."

East Japan Railway Co worked with information technology consultancy Signpost Co to set up the store last month at a train station on a popular commuter line.

For payment, shoppers swipe an RFID card at the entrance and again when they leave. Cameras powered with AI track which products they choose.

There are still some bugs: in Kobayashi's case, the system confused his order with that of his co-worker. The staffless store is still being tested but could be opened elsewhere in response to labour shortages, a spokesman from East Japan Railway said.

Omotenashi helped Japan rank No. 1 last year in customer satisfaction, according to a World Economic Forum study on tourism.

Most commonly, it embodies intense personal interaction with customers, an extreme willingness to respond to even the slightest request, to speak only the most polite Japanese, and to bow frequently.

Even workers at supermarkets and budget hotels are trained to bow, speak in polite tones, and are more attentive than most of their counterparts abroad.

But Japanese companies now are forced to consider how much of a personal touch they can afford. The ratio of new jobs to applicants is already at a four-decade high and is likely to rise even further.

Japan's working-age population will fall 35 percent to 50.7 million in 2065 from 78.1 million in 2015, the United Nations says.

Capital expenditure in the services sector, which started to accelerate in the last quarter of 2016, rose 9.2 percent in the first half of this year, the fastest increase in almost three years.

The investment could pay off in Japan, which has the lowest productivity among Group of Seven countries.

Matsuya Foods Holdings Co is remodelling some of its beef bowl restaurants to self-service. Customers pick up their food from a counter, pour their own tea and clear their own trays, meaning less interaction with staff.

Convenience store operator Lawson Inc is testing a system that allows shoppers to scan and pay for goods with their mobile phones.

At Takashimaya Co's Nihonbashi department store in central Tokyo, veteran concierge Masanori Shikita, 71, scowled when asked whether omotenashi would lose its human touch.

"Our basic philosophy is we put people first," he said."Omotenashi means you remain at the customer's side, and you see things from the customer's perspective as you show them hospitality."

To be sure, some elements of the customer-service tradition are not likely to disappear. Takashimaya's building in Nihonbashi, constructed in 1933, is designated an important cultural property and has elaborate, staff-operated elevators.

Yuria Nagamoto, 22, has been working as an elevator operator for the past three years. Dressed in a dark uniform and pillbox hat, she announces what items are available before stopping the elevator at each floor.

"At Takashimaya, customers ask you so many different questions that I had to study a lot, but it is important to be able to reply to the customers' needs," she said.

But some companies say machines help them keep the human touch in omotenashi.

Fast Retailing Co has installed self-checkout tills at 195 stores for its low-cost apparel brand GU. The company says that customers like the machines, but that it will not cut staff.

"The new system increases efficiency for store operations significantly, hence store staff can spend more time with customers when shopping," a spokeswoman for Fast Retailing said. "This initiative actually improves our service level."

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2018.

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

16 Comments
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companies simply cannot hire enough workers.

BS. If they pay enough, people will come.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

stirring fears that self-checkout systems and software will take the human touch out of omotenashi, the country's vaunted commitment to hospitality.

You mean the women who mumble irashaimase without looking up at you from what you are doing in the conbinis or the other people who suck their teeth and say moshiwakegozaimasen when they can't be bothered to try and help you? That omotenashi? Thank you but I'll have nashi of that omotenashi.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

without looking up at you from what THEY are doing

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I've started using the "self regi" at my local FamilyMart.

Best service I have ever received.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

it embodies intense personal interaction with customers, an extreme willingness to respond to even the slightest request,

As recently reported, omotenashi in Tokyo assumes not very many disabled people will want to stay in the city's hotels and if they do, they will come with helpers. I doubt "even the slightest requests" of vegetarians go down very well most of the time. "Interaction" does not come into it.

Omotenashi is a very nice way of serving up what someone thinks you'll want. I'm a complete Japanophile, so it works for me, but it is arrogant and foolish to assume that that approach works for everyone.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Most commonly, it embodies intense personal interaction with customers, an extreme willingness to respond to even the slightest request, to speak only the most polite Japanese, and to bow frequently.

Indeed, and that response to any non-standard request will be "moshiwakegozaimasen" with the bow, killing 3 birds with one stone!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

stirring fears that self-checkout systems and software will take the human touch out of omotenashi, the country's vaunted commitment to hospitality.

This is just replacing robots with more robots. When the "human" robots provide me a service that is not already on their script or menu, the I'll call that good hospitality.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

*then

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Japan has the best,Customer service in the world as far as I'm concerned. I've been all over North America and many countries in Europe. I haven't see anything that comes close to Japan when it comes to customer service.

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

Ok you naysayers what country has better customer service than Japan??

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Japan has consistently good service. It's easy to get used to and forget how good it is. Yes, I've recieved much better service elsewhere on specific occasions (often by employees doing what they were not supposed to do), but it was memorable precisely because it was so unexpected.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Japan has the best overall service of any of the 40+ countries I've been to. It also for me holds the title of the best service I've received at any establishment ever, at a particular ryokan/onsen in Kamikochi in Nagano.

Sometimes the service can be a bit frustrating, if you go off manual, and in other countries you'll sometimes get warmer friendly interactions. But as far as quality of service goes, Japan wins.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Ok you naysayers what country has better customer service than Japan??

Countries as a whole, can't say. Varies from place to place. I found customer service poor in some parts of the US and excellent in others. The same in France, Ireland, Cyprus, Indonesia and any number of other places I could name.

Iceland was pretty good, apart from the legendary Blue Lagoon. I'll put that down to oversubscribers on the day.

But overall, over the years, I'd say Japan wins hands down.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I'm with those who praise Japanese service standards. It's so rare to get poor service you remember those that don't give it to you - that accommodation service guy in Takayama, that clothing shop woman in Kawagoe. Those I remember.

Sacrifice your No.1 rating in customer satisfaction? Not the way to go, Japan.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Matsuya Foods Holdings Co is remodelling some of its beef bowl restaurants to self-service. Customers pick up their food from a counter, pour their own tea and clear their own trays, meaning less interaction with staff.

I'm fine with this. When I go to Matsuya/Yoshinoya/Tendon etc., I'm not worried about the customer experience. My goal is to get quick food cheaply, and this might even speed things up a bit without having to wait for staff.

At Takashimaya Co's Nihonbashi department store in central Tokyo, veteran concierge Masanori Shikita, 71, scowled when asked whether omotenashi would lose its human touch.

Of course, the very top echelon of consumers will always be taken care of. They need not worry. For the rest of us, looks like we'd better start getting used to AI and robots.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Service from those living robots that cant or wont go off script in Japan - I was in Taiwan this year they had great service and there was a person behind the service.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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