In the fiercely competitive world of Japanese fashion retail nothing is left to chance, least of all good service. Anyone who has shopped in Tokyo will know all about the polite staff, immaculate merchandising and precision wrapping. But at Beams, the Tokyo fashion company founded in 1976, service has been pushed a step further with a separate division whose sole responsibility is styling the people who work on the shop floor.
The Styling Advice Division is headed up by two former chief buyers, Kenjiro Wada and Mika Maruyama, who both joined the company in 1990 and began their careers as sales assistants. They make a striking pair. Maruyama is in a Martin Margiela sweater and boots, Comme des Garçons Tricot quilted skirt and her favourite pearls. Wada, a medal-winning shootboxer, sports a tweed cape from Japanese brand Ace, vintage knickerbockers and Heinrich Dinkelacker brogues. And a hint of a Mohawk. The look is edgy but approachably so.
Beams started with just one shop in Harajuku but it now boasts 151 outlets and sales of ¥64.9bn (€446m) last year. “The company was growing rapidly and we realised there was a lack of styling advice for staff,” says Wada. Wada and Maruyama visit the shops and talk to staff about how they should dress. “The training is not about trying to make everyone look the same or follow specific rules – it’s about encouraging them to enjoy styling,” says Wada “People who work here tend to love fashion anyway.” There’s an element of practicality, too. Long trailing sleeves might be big fashion news but they are not going to work in everyday life.
Wada and Maruyama see the job as more than talking through the latest trends; they’re also teaching staff about everything from fashion history to stitching techniques and fabrics – even how to dress to look taller. “We think of it as basic education, the way children are taught about food at school,” says Wada.
Staff from Beams shops all over Japan post their looks daily on a Flickr account from which Wada and Maruyama pick a “Good Styling” winner for the week. Staff from the Taipei shop join in via email, sending pictures of what they’re wearing. A couple of times a year a particularly stylish member of staff is awarded a special prize. Maruyama says it is a matter of pride for shops to see their staff win the style award. At the Shinjuku Lumine branch staff even put on their own after-hours fashion show.
The two style directors are on a tight schedule. They try to get to every region twice a season, meaning an exhausting travel schedule as they criss-cross Japan. Maruyama also goes to the Paris collections to keep up with the latest catwalk looks. Twice a year she brings in beauty professionals for hair and make-up sessions in Tokyo and Osaka. “It’s not just about clothes,” she says. “It’s the total look: hair, nails and make-up, too.”
At Beams Harajuku, Wada is holding a styling session. The staff listen intently with clipboards at the ready as Wada goes through different types of aviator jackets. He has brought in visual materials and his own vintage extreme-weather hood.
What could be dismissed as frivolous has a serious business purpose. It is a simple equation: the better the staff look, the more people are likely to spend. “People who come to Beams expect staff to be well dressed; it’s part of the reason they shop here,” says Wada. Staff spend time with each customer, styling outfits that shoppers might not otherwise have the nerve to put together.
Staff don’t have to wear top-to-toe Beams but the general rule is that two out of three elements – tops, bottoms and shoes – should come from the shop and preferably from the current season. Sloppy dressing is unacceptable. “Back in my day we took our bosses very seriously,” says Maruyama. “If we weren’t dressed right we had to buy something from the shop there and then. With this generation we often have to be more affirming and make suggestions.”
The styling sessions are part of the bigger picture for Beams staff. All of them go through two weeks of general training where they learn bowing and wrapping. Before the Harajuku shop opens the super-cool self-styled staff gather in a circle to run through a quick rehearsal of the three key bows they need to know: 15 degrees, 30 degrees and, politest of all, 45 degrees. It is hard to imagine such a scene in London or Paris.
Kentaro Harada, from Beams’ human-development department, says that good service is about more than a series of rules. Rather, it is something that should be internalised and seem completely natural in any situation. It is hard to imagine what Japanese travellers make of the surly service they are bound to encounter in some other countries around the world. Harada considers Japanese shoppers to be the most exacting anywhere but says it is a two-way contract. “Shops in Japan provide high levels of service,” he says, “so customers have very high expectations.”
Shopping in Japan: essential etiquette
If it is raining, look out for the umbrella bags at the front door.
Take your shoes off in the fitting room and (for ladies) slip the cloth bag provided over your head to avoid make-up smears on clothes.
Hand money or cards over using the small tray provided.
On rainy days, wait for the staff to protect your already wrapped package in an additional plastic bag.
Don’t snatch purchases. Enjoy being escorted to the door and having the bag handed to you.