I spent the last week of 2011 and first week of 2012 in Japan traveling between Nagano, Kyoto and Tokyo employing roughly one-fifth of my college education, a minor in Japanese, as best I could.
In between snowboarding in Nagano, seeing temples and shrines in Kyoto and riding trains in Tokyo, I managed to check out some 150 boutiques. I even, somewhat, bypassed the online shopping craze during the holiday season in preparation for the trip. And let's just say my more financially prudent self did not make the trip.
In the midst of going over my self-imposed spending limit (us Americans aren't so good at spending limits, I guess), I was able to learn at least one thing worth sharing. No offense, but the Japanese could teach classes to American retailers and boutique owners about meticulous customer-centric merchandising and shop upkeep.
During the mornings, you'd see shop owners and employees doing everything from scrubbing the floors while on all fours to double-counting how many items were folded on each table. When the stores opened, the focus was solely on the products the customer touched and seemed to desire. The decorations, fixtures and racks were set up in such a way that you couldn't help but touch a few things in every store.
Words just cannot do justice to places like the Isetan men's department store in Shinjuku, designer Tsumori Chisato's shop in Aoyama (where they refused to allow photos), any of the United Arrows shops around Tokyo, and even the small, locally-owned shops in Kyoto or Nagano.
Major fashion retail companies like J. Crew, Forever 21 and Target should send all of their merchants and store managers to Japan to check out the setup and service at places like Beams, Loveless and Tokyu Hands. If not all of their merchants and managers, at least the ones in fashion-forward cities like New York, LA, Chicago and San Francisco. Cities where European and Asian retailers appear to be targeting for hand-to-hand consumer combat.
Upstart boutique owners and shoppers may not be able to afford the trek to the Far East, so I'll meet you halfway by suggesting some U.S.-based shops that meet the type of merchandising acumen I'm referring to having seen throughout Japan. Some of these shops were mentioned on my previous go-to shopping list here.
I'm not sure when I'll next be visiting Japan, but I know the next time I visit these cities and shops, I'll think back to the merchandising prowess displayed by our friends on the other side of the Pacific.
1. Bodega -- There were plenty of awesome sneaker shops in Harajuku. Similarly, there are several well-designed sneaker boutiques here in the U.S. Undefeated is a behemoth and Alife Rivington Club is always worth a visit. But this Boston shop is second to none when it comes to merchandising. You have to experience the entrance and mahogany heaven for yourself.
2. Canopy Blue -- You'll see and hear words like "unassuming" and "nestled" describe this boutique when someone describes the experience of stumbling upon this shop in the Madison neighborhood of Seattle. This dreamland doesn't feel like Seattle, which is not to say that it's not right at home, but to say that its design truly stands out. The airy space feels like falling into a retail day bed. Canopied dressing rooms, blue walls and chandeliers and seashells may have you thinking you've landed in Greece or, at least, Southern California by mistake.
3. Confederacy -- The shop's owners -- That 70's Show actor Danny Masterson being one of them -- are wonks for customer service and have laid the store out primarily to enhance the shopping experience. Vintage-inspired phone booth-turned-dressing rooms, '50s-themed Tea Room and 16-foot ceilings make it easy to spend more time looking at the shop than the collections they sell. Also, the employees are dressed in uniforms by the likes of Rag & Bone and Shipley and Halmos.
4. Mellow Johnny's -- Does a more interesting place to buy a bike exist than this Lance Armstrong-owned one? Probably not. Sure, they're missing fixed-gear options for the hipster bunch, and the Nike imprint in the shop is a bit overbearing (along with Lance's other brand affiliations), but you can't not be impressed in here. The sad part is that the shop probably makes more money online selling yellow gear to people who've never had the privilege of walking into the shop.
5. Opening Ceremony -- It's not the most accessible shop, from a price standpoint, but the brands -- Rodarte, Topshop, Rachel Comey -- represent a great mix of what's now and what's next, what's "in" now and what never goes out of style. The Olympics-inspired design is both concentrated and evolving reminding me of what Japan's best stores had to offer.
6. Saturdays Surf NYC -- A surf shop in SoHo. Last year, I had coffee here with a friend in the midst of Manhattan's record snowstorm. The shop's coffee offerings, surfside collection of clothing, books and boards, and hip staff made this place a cocoon of cool and a warm retreat from the weather outside.
7. Self Edge -- You won't find a more interesting place to buy a pair of designer jeans than this San Francisco style stalwart. Its owner Kiya Babzani has built a following through educating the rest of us on high-quality denim, with an obvious passion for emerging Japanese brands.
8. Sir & Madame -- This black-owned Chicago gem is located in the Ukrainian Village, not far from the popular Wicker Park area. The shop may be the smallest on this list, but they've packed it with stellar brands, salvaged furniture and a comforting, soulful personality that could only come from a husband-and-wife team.