October – Hermès, Osaka

Having a brand that appears to be overshadowed by a showier and more headline-grabbing rival can provide the inspiration to do something a bit different, if you want to get noticed.

And as global brands go, they don’t get any more attention seeking than ‘King of Handbags’, Louis Vuitton. For years, the brand has been synonymous with innovative VM and sensational window displays, whilst competitors have appeared rather staid by comparison.

Hermès obviously noticed this too because, in October, I experienced the company’s latest marketing initiative to raise the profile and awareness of its brand – at the Hilton hotel in Osaka, Japan. Entitled ‘8 Cravates’, it was more of a micro art installation and prominently located outside Hermes’ flagship boutique.

The art installation took the form of a series of bright orange interlocking cubes that visitors would walk through. Inside, was a series of imaginative displays featuring the brand’s signature range of men’s ties. These were arranged into various forms, including one as an enormous tie shape, turning a simple clothing accessory into a significant sculptural piece. Inside, patterns featuring the design themes of the ties themselves were transformed into an immersive, hypnotic graphic sound and light experience – the effect was truly mesmerising!

This showed Hermès pitching itself as a modern and ‘intelligent’ brand, with the sharp lines and techno treatment of the installation slightly at odds with what one might expect from this normally classically restrained French fashion house.

And yet, other brands could learn from this. Even the most innovative window displays are, after all, only effective for a few fleeting minutes. Hermès’ approach left a longer term imprint on the mind. It spoke to visitors at a different level, allowing time for pause, thought and reflection, letting people ‘connect’ with the brand and stop to consider what, if any, meaning it had for much longer. In creating an exhibition of sorts, it had more scope to communicate at a level of ‘feelings and perceptions’ about the brand and how it could touch consumers in other more interesting, and potentially deeper, ways.

I think it will be interesting to see whether Hermès’ new approach paid off in terms of the sale of the featured, and, if so, where the company might take this imaginative new approach next.

September – Tokyo’s Tokyo, Japan



Tokyo’s superb retail offer is renowned. From the spectacular flagship brand concept stores and the impressive national department stores to the mind-boggling number of convenience outlets, the Japanese have many places to shop!

I visited the new Tokyo Plaza (opened in April 2012) during one of two visits to Japan this year. The Tokyo Plaza Mall is located in one of the country’s leading tourist spots – the Tokyo Waterfront Center. The Mall has 154 distinctive stores, comprising of a quirky mix of independent and local fashion boutiques, infused with the unique flavour of the Shibuya, Ginza, and Akihabara retail areas. Although many global brands are represented, including H&M, American Eagle and the first Old Navy to open outside the USA, it has a decidedly non-corporate atmosphere. This comes as an antidote to the highly controlled world of corporate mega-brands that exist outside. Just across the street is a new Topshop / Topman store, recently opened as part of Sir Philip Green’s international expansion plans.

I’ve selected this image from Tokyo’s Tokyo, as it was both an interesting and well-designed store. The basic concept is books, stationery, novelties and lifestyle goods – a cross between Paperchase (without the greetings cards), Muji and the now-defunct National Geographic store. It reminded me of a ‘museum store’ but in a mall – executed with thought, care and expertise.

Store fixtures have been designed as a series of overscaled open books, with gently curved fixture fronts resembling the pages – a novel idea (no pun intended). Inside, pigeon holes, shelves and rails are used to present the various stock items. Highlights within the pages were done using line burst focal points, like visible exclamation marks saying ‘WOW!’ It’s a busy and fun store and somewhere that’s also a little bit different. It’s certainly a place you can find something quirky, unusual and that’s sure to raise a smile.

Retail Focus: I’ll have customer service for Christmas please

I am sure that everyone is now aware that Christmas is nearly upon us. It’s been another tough year for UK retail, and I for one am hoping that Christmas doesn’t lead to a period of sliding retail standards and poor customer service, as a result of overstretched store teams.

As I write this, I’m in Asia working with Harley-Davidson Japan. Whilst I’m here to implement a global brand delivery and VM programme with my client, Japanese retailers are giving me a stern reminder of what the best customer service standards in the world look like.

Like the UK, Japan has had its share of economic woes, and it’s also endured a recent national disaster of epic proportions. And whilst this has caused the nation and its retail industry tremendous anguish and pain, you wouldn’t know it when shopping in Tokyo. Could the same be said of the UK right now?

Without exaggeration, the Japanese treat customers like gods. They’re detail orientated, intolerant, culturally shy, and deferential when dealing with customers. It’s no surprise then that they don’t take easily to personal glory, instead internalising immense pride and satisfaction in a good job VERY well done. Store teams are mostly impeccably dressed, generally in suits in the top end stores, and even in casual or fashion stores, staff are well turned out in company clothing with good grooming.

Instore, this all equates to fantastic customer service and an excellent shopping experience. Here are some of the basic elements that impressed me most.

The Greeting

The greeting means something here. It’s not just the cursory and repetitive “welcome to the Gap” or the even more annoying “Wassuuuppp?” of fellow American brand Hollister. In Japan there is an established way of greeting, where customers are bowed to, welcomed by a sincere verbal introduction and advised in no uncertain terms that if the sales staff can do anything for them, they will. This can be a little overbearing when first witnessed, but culturally it’s the norm in the better-end stores.

The Service

Nothing is too much trouble for the Japanese, and service is attentive, responsive and very accommodating. In this mutual respect relationship customers are also very well mannered, making for a ‘love me, love my shop’ approach. I have experienced the highest levels of customer service that include providing a chair for customers to sit on! Refreshments such as green tea are standard, as is the removal and care of shoes before entering a fitting room, and one-to-one service. To the average westerner (or was it just me?), I find some of this a bit suffocating. But as a general principle of ‘thinking like a customer’ and how to deliver service that goes the extra mile – it ticks all the boxes.

The Payment / Wrapping

Everyone is treated with courtesy and respect at the tills, but higher up the price scale the wrapping becomes VERY indulgent. I’m not talking about expensive items, just nice cakes from a bakery, a pair of good shoes etc. Pleasingly, carrier bags are not dispensed as the 5p decomposable type we’re being forced to take, but more ‘keepsake’ bags made from attractive materials, with stylish branding and special features such as ribbon and tissue inside. Bags that customers want to keep and re-use. In the UK, this is becoming a lost art with our relentless push on eco-friendly packaging solutions, which have taken much of the enjoyment out of taking your booty home! Surely there’s a way to have responsible carrier bags that still delight? The downside of Japan’s packaging nirvana is that there is little public awareness or appetite for recycling / cutting down waste. And whilst the UK can learn from Japan’s attentiveness to the consumer, we lead the way in sustainable eco-awareness.

The Departure

It’s not uncommon for sales staff to attend the customer to the exit. Even going outside to offer a final bow and give grateful thanks to the customer as they walk away with their backs turned up the street. This ‘respect’ is part of bringing good luck to the store by having positive energy and positive relations with customers.

These are all considered basic, yet essential elements of successful customer service, and with the exception of packaging (which could even be a new revenue stream), they are all simple to implement into a brand. I am not suggesting that UK retailers adopt the Japanese culture of bowing, but I am suggesting that a little extra effort to attend to customers’ requirements this Christmas will increase sales, brand loyalty and return visits.

During the Olympics, alongside our winning athletes, it was the Games Makers that stole the news headlines – offering their cheerful, enthusiastic and helpful support to all those attending. Repeating this spirit, if not also the deeds, will certainly make customers happier when shopping and will likely increase the number of successful purchases made. And of course, this is a time of year when staff can a. be frazzled, or b. be even more motivated by the hoards of impatient and hurried Yuletide shoppers, who stop by to simply ‘interrupt’ their day.

As retailers look around for new pain saving measures, such as Business Rate freezes, market town rejuvenations and a new round of new discounting depths, wouldn’t it be better to simply look after the existing customers better and in so doing, make more sales and stronger retail businesses that way?

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iRobot?

Curious shoppers enjoying the robot vacuum cleaners in a Japanese electrical store. These displays always create a buzz, with children wanting to play with them and men trying to race them! The women, however, seem to know better. They can be found browsing the more reliable cleaning devices elsewhere.

Karl’s Japan Photo of the Day: Distant global partners working in close local cooperation

This week I completed a project, which has been six months in planning and development. The brief: to create a new VM agency team for one of our corporate clients – Harley-Davidson Japan.

Starting with the development of a simple recruitment brief, we went on to deliver a comprehensive training programme to equip the newly-formed team of ten VM consultants with all the knowledge and skills required to implement the H-D Global VM Programme. This runs throughout the entire H-D Japan network of some 180 dealers, to launch in early 2013.

All stages of the project were completed by us working with H-DJ in native Japanese language. This included all of the recruitment and selection activities, and an intensive VM training and development programme, through to the design and production of a wide range of VM support tools and information.

The project has been a great success and is just one example of where Visual Thinking is increasingly helping major global brands to deliver their customer experience to a consistently high global standard.

Click here to take a look at some of Visual Thinking’s other global clients.

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Karl’s Japan Photo of the Day: Graphics

Japan has a rich and varied history of decorative art. For centuries, life was recorded through the creation of delicate murals and illuminated pages. Here, pastel soft images of immaculate Geishas in minimalist Bonsai gardens immediately spring to mind. Subtle, delicate and created with restraint, in a style that uses only a few carefully applied visual elements with great care and attention to detail.

With a striking contrast, the more recent, similarly iconic and instantly recognisable style of Japanese ‘Manga’ comic books and cartoons has an eerily stylised, commanding and futuristic tone.

Today, this strong graphic tradition continues with a wide range of contemporary examples developed for use within retailers. Whether as applied, large format, digitally produced graphics or hand painted murals, dramatic graphic design (retail art) makes a bold statement in Japanese stores.

Unlike many stores where imagery like this has been largely replaced with cheaper and more ‘brand relevant’ photographic media, they make a pleasant change and create a strong presence instore.

The following examples were from a selection of stores seen in Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe, taken on a recent client project.

Click here to see more images of Japanese graphics used in retail, on the Visual Thinking Facebook page. 

Karl’s Japan Photo of the Day: Western Brands

The major cities of Japan have, in recent years, undergone a subtle invasion of American and European retail brands.

Many of these chains have only launched within the last ten years and are already changing the balance of power within the country’s retail landscape.

With economies of scale now being possible in the distribution and sale of branded goods on a global basis, retailers have both seen and, by all accounts, taken the opportunity to extend their reach into one of the most affluent and style-conscious countries on the planet.

In so doing, they have created another layer to an already dynamic fusion of style influences, gathered from centuries of East and West trade.

A wide range of major apparel and lifestyle retailers from the USA, UK and Continental Europe are now well established and growing in store numbers.

These images are taken from Aoyama, Tokyo’s leading designer district, and the recently developed retail areas surrounding Osaka station – the North and South Mall Buildings.

Click here to view more pictures of Western brands in Japan on the Visual Thinking Facebook page.

Karl’s Japan Photo of the Day: Aspirational Retailing

Japan has a well-established and very sophisticated retail market. With local branded concepts and stores at each end of the price spectrum, it’s little wonder that European brands have taken some time to enter and become successful in this market.

As a case in point, the Inditex Group is represented here by only two of the company’s numerous fascias; the relatively recent Zara brand, and now with the first of its Massimo Dutti stores.

But it’s the local lifestyle sector stores that have caught my eye. These images showcase some of the newest and best examples. High on style and typically high price, these brands capture the essence of Japanese ‘aspirational’ retailing.

Developed with a fusion of American and European cultural and retail influences, these stores deliver a unique sense of style and many original products. Generally, stores are presented with very high retail standards and show great attention to detail, with exceptional customer service.

To see all of the images, visit the Visual Thinking Facebook page here.