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A Japanese Department Store From the Inside: What Don’t They Sell?

Plain and simple: I have never been to a place where customer service is better performed than Japan. Let me remind you, this is a country where even McDonald’s will treat you as a human being instead of just throwing a Big Mac in your face and 7-Eleven will kindly give you wet paper napkins so you can clean your hands, even when you don’t ask for them. I personally think you don’t need such politeness at the places listed above, but this is Japan.

Japanese vendors have always provided such service and treated customers like gods since God knows when. And what place better to experience such customer service than a Japanese department store?

One day in April, I entered the magical world of Mitsukoshi, one of the most prestigious department stores in Japan to report my findings. I’ll start with some background.

In the US, department stores are slightly a thing of the past. Yes, there are prestigious stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, and Nieman Marcus in major cities like New York, but most places only occupy the very edge of the mall, and many department stores have really lost their high status. Would you go buy the latest fashion items at J.C Penney? Probably not your first choice. And you only go to Sears if you want to look for a cheap vacuum cleaner, only to later buy the perfect model online. Hard to imagine Sears used to sell fine men’s suits back in the ’40s.

Meanwhile in Japan, department stores are still major competitors in the retail business. There are still countless department store chains in Japan, with some that are still in business after more than 300 years. Even the private railroad companies have their own large department store chains, so that train passengers can buy products from the same company.

On this day, my target was Mitsukoshi, perhaps one of the most famous and prestigious department stores in Japan. Originally a large kimono store called Echigo-ya, it opened in 1673 (!), and became a major business in the Edo Period (or Samurai Period). The owners, the Mitsui family, grew rich, and eventually opened up various companies under the Mitsui Zaibatsu (a family-owned conglomerate)—from major banks to ship buildings, so this Mitsukoshi department store is closely related to modern Japan’s economy.

Inside Mitsukoshi (Photo courtesy: Tetsu Kikuchi)

Inside Mitsukoshi
(Photo courtesy: Tetsu Kikuchi)


My purpose on this particular visit was to get some sweets for my grandmother. Nowadays, unless you go to very old department stores like Harrods in London, you won’t really find foods and treats in department stores. However, this is not the case in Japan.

For years, Japanese department stores are the place to go to buy any food and drink-related items. From cakes to champagne and even raw fish for sashimi, depachika (Japanese nickname for department store underground) has everything you need. This is how much Japanese people care about food.

This time I decided to get a box of cookies called Hato Sabure, a dove shaped biscuit cookie-esque sweet. (Hato is dove in Japanese, and sabure comes from Sablé, a type of French biscuit. It’s a simple butter biscuit from the looks, but this crispy butter flavor is just delicious!) I went to the counter where these magical biscuits are sold, and was cheerfully greeted by the phrase “Irasshaimase!” from three ladies in charge of the place.

[Note: “Irasshaimase” is a greeting phrase for stores and restaurants roughly meaning “Welcome to our store,” and is a must-say word for any store/restaurant employees in Japan. Next time you go to your local Japanese restaurant, try to spot this phrase. If you don’t hear it, chances are it’s not an authentic Japanese restaurant.]

I kindly asked for a canned box with 16 dove biscuits in it for ¥1,836 JPY (about $15 USD). Then before I said anything about gift wrapping, the retail worker asked me, “Is this a personal, wedding, or other event gift?” People from other countries will be amazed, but Japanese store-person can actually read customers’ minds. This is quite customary in Japan, since not only are we crazy about food, but we are also crazy about giving gifts as well. Depending on the occasion, department stores have many different wrapping papers on standby. It should also be noted that the retail worker didn’t mention the word “funeral” since it is bad luck and impolite to the customer.

Once I said personal gift, the woman told me “My pleasure,” and the two other workers quickly took out the canned box, and started wrapping like androids folding an origami masterpiece. Meanwhile, the worker in front of me took care of me at the cash register. After I signed a receipt and looked forward, the lady was holding the paper shopping bag with the box of biscuits fresh from wrapping. That took a mere 20-30 seconds. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the average level of customer service in a Japanese department store. And it’s not like I bought 10 boxes of biscuits. These people are treating every customer as royalty.

However, not everything is nice in depachika. One thing is the price. This is a department store, not your local Walmart. There are many things you can only get in department stores, but there are also many things you can get in other more economical places. One example is normal groceries. Mitsukoshi and many other department stores also sell your daily groceries like meat and salt, but unless you are filthy rich and/or extremely stupid, you wouldn’t buy a $40 bottle of black pepper in a size of an aspirin bottle.

Photo Courtesy: Tetsu Kikuchi

The most ridiculous thing I found (Photo courtesy: Tetsu Kikuchi)

This is a watermelon that’s a size of a soccer ball. But if you look closely at the price tag, it says ¥3,800 JPY. That’s about $31 USD (…$31!!!) Now I like watermelon, but I’m also not stupid enough to pay my hard-earned cash of $31 for a very small watermelon. I really wonder how good this is, but then again, watermelon is 98% water so you’re technically paying $31 for water. Now if there is anything more financially illogical than this, I want to know.

So this was a small glimpse of Mitsukoshi and its services. There are plenty more things to feature from Japanese department stores, but I will not spoil it for those who are thinking about visiting Japan one day.


Tetsu Kikuchi

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