Monday, May 28, 2007

On the Loose

My moratorium on shopping ended today and I headed off to the local market. This is in large part because my husband is coming back tomorrow (and there will be much rejoicing) and there are certain things that I'd like to have on hand for him (such as cream for coffee). I'm also running low on an essential I can't scrounge for. That's Diet Coke. ;-)

I've kvetched before about how annoying things can be while shopping and how Japanese service is highly over-rated by most foreigners. There's a reason for this. Most tourists visit tourist places where the bread and butter of the businesses is providing such good service that you'll not only come back but also recommend the places you visit to others. Most tourists don't go to supermarkets because they don't cook or have refrigerators. None of them have to get household items repaired or services installed. The range of experiences of visitors to Japan are quite limited compared to those who live here so that's why the service is always praised by those who visit compared to those who live here.

Today at the market, I had one of those experiences which is so typical in Japan that tourists almost never experience. I had a basket full of beverages, dairy products, and greens and the clerk was running things past the scanner. I should say that, in Japan, you don't have shopping carts for the most part. You have plastic baskets which you carry by the handles. There are tiny carts you can put the basket in if you want but it's not like in the U.S. where you push a huge cart around and toss stuff in it.

When you have a full basket, the normal procedure among clerks, particularly when there are both heavy items and lighter, crushable items like sprouts and lettuce, if for them to ring up the lighter items and set them aside. They then leave the heavy items in the basket and ring them up then put the lighter items back on top of them. This is different from the usual procedure which is to scan the price of each item in and put it into a second, empty basket which the customer carries off while the clerk puts the original, now empty basket, into a stack beside her.

In my case, the clerk was having a conversation with the clerks behind her and couldn't be bothered to do things properly for me. She separated everything out into two half-full baskets for her convenience making it harder for me to carry them. The baskets are bulky and the aisles in front of the check-out are narrow - too narrow for a person to carry a basket in each hand and walk out unless one does it in an awkward sideways fashion. It's even harder to do when one of the baskets has 5-1.5 liter bottles and 6-500 ml. bottles of soda making it heavy and unwieldy.

As she was finishing up her half-assed job, one of the clerks behind her dropped a 100 yen coin and this pushed her into quarter-assed-job mode. She hurriedly rang up and tossed in the remaining items and roughly crammed bags into each basket so she could get to searching for that coin. I guess dealing with customers comes second when a dangerous 100 yen coin is on the loose.


tornados28 said...

I have spent alot of time in small town Japan visiting my in-laws and I have visited many stores and restaurants where tourists or even gaijin for that matter never visit and for the most part, the service is very good and I feel much better than in America.

But of course I have still only visited Japan and you live there but I do feel the quality of service in America is much worse.

Shari said...

I haven't lived in the U.S. for a very long time so I'm not in a position to make such comparisons which is why I didn't make them in my post. My point is that Japan does not live up to its reputation for universally great service when you live here.

However, my husband just returned and I asked him about this and his take is that the U.S. service is more uneven than that in Japan. It can be bad and then it's worse than here. When it's good though, it tends to be much better. The difference is the Japanese have a way of being polite in a cursory fashion that they are generally obliged to do. It's insincere but it's almost always there. Even when someone isn't serving your well or properly, they will still be polite in Japan whereas in the U.S. they might be rude while they aren't serving you well or properly.

However, comparisons between the U.S. and Japan on certain points are very hard to make. The U.S. isn't uniform culturally and you find things are vastly different based on region and population density. Most people who don't grow up there don't realize the U.S. is more like a collection of little countries than one big country. Experiences vary greatly. In Japan, similar differences exist but they are mainly between rural and urban experiences (with city people being far ruder than country people) but there's still an underlying uniform "code" of behavior that tends to be followed in Japan which does not happen in the U.S.