Uniqlo tries to win shoppers with concierge service

By Asako Sawanishi, Kyodo

Posted at Jan 21 2013 09:18 AM | Updated as of Jan 21 2013 09:15 PM

TOKYO -  With Japanese retailers competing fiercely to attract customers, it has become the vogue to staff stores and showrooms with a new breed of customer service experts under the chic-sounding tag of "concierges."

The idea is to win shoppers' loyalty by offering the kind of professional expertise exhibited by hotel concierges attending to guests.

The Uniqlo casual clothing chain has introduced nearly 20 concierges at its flagship store in Tokyo's Ginza district, which opened in March 2012.

Like ordinary shop clerks, these concierges help customers find products, and are supposed to be familiar with the thousand or so items displayed and stocked throughout the 12-floor store.

But they also cater to the general needs of tourist shoppers, who constitute a key customer base, providing directions to the nearest stations and information on nearby restaurants and entertainment facilities.

Since nearly 30 percent of the Ginza store's customers are foreign visitors, the concierges are picked from among multilingual employees. Each of them speaks at least one of four foreign languages -- English, French, Chinese and Korean.

Yuki Obataya, a concierge who speaks Chinese and English, said that visitors praise the Ginza store's staff for living up to the high standard expected of the upscale shopping district.

Teruaki Matsumoto, the store manager, said, "As this area is crowded with tourists, we keep ourselves prepared to reply to any question they may ask."

Tower Records has also embraced the concierge approach, as ordinary store staff members find it difficult to attend fully to customers' needs on crowded store floors. The company created a "concierge counter" dedicated to handling customers' inquiries at the Shinjuku store when it was renovated in April 2012.

"Customers hesitate to ask questions when they see store clerks in a hustle and bustle," a Tower Records official said. "So it occurred to us to create a section staffed by experts who can answer questions concerning any genre of music."

Meanwhile, Pasona Group Inc., a staffing service company, has trained around 70 personnel to acquire expert knowledge on environment-friendly home appliances and household energy systems over the past year and a half. These "eco-concierges" are deployed at showrooms and exhibition booths to give energy-saving tips as well as product information to visitors on behalf of appliance and housing makers.

At the ECO Life Studio showroom at the Tressa Yokohama shopping mall, eco-concierges instruct visitors on how to use the heat pump type of highly efficient water heating system and a battery recharger for electric cars. They also act as instructors in a cooking lesson course using the energy-efficient induction heater cooking system.

Sanae Mitsui, a Pasona Marketing Inc. official in charge of eco-friendly business, characterized the concierges as "customer service professionals who understand new products and technologies and explain them to consumers in plain language."