Meet Aiko Chihira. She speaks Japanese and wears a kimono. She greets customers and conveys information.
But Aiko’s not Japanese. She’s not even human.
She’s an android made by Toshiba and now she works at Mitsukoshi, the high-end department store in Nihonbashi.
Unfortunately she can’t converse or respond to questions, unlike the more interactive Nao humanoid robot, currently serving Mitsubishi UFJ bank customers, or Pepper, the friendly droid greeting visitors to Softbank stores.
But she blinks, bows, moves her (sorry, its) mouth and lips. She is programmed with human-like facial expressions and can offer a looped vocal guidance to department store customers.
For example, if you want to hear about the layout or an event, this robot will tell you.
She can even communicate in sign language, so at least the uncanny valley is barrier free for the deaf.
Toshiba describes her as the “quiet type” who is “happy to help people”. Something tells us there might be some male fantasies at play here…
Find Aiko on the ground floor of Mitsukoshi. Sadly, she’s not a permanent addition. She will only be “working” at the store on April 20th and April 21st. She is a promotional feature as part of a longer Toshiba event at the seventh floor Hajimarino Cafe from April 22nd to May 5th.
Taco Bell is returning to Japan.
Its first new branch will open in Shibuya in the Dogenzaka area on April 21st.
Of course, Taco Bell has been a mainstay of U.S. military bases in Japan for years, but these are off-limits to regular Japanese civilians.
Taco Bell previously attempted to enter the Japanese market in the 1980’s but like many other foreign fast food outlets, it failed and left. It suffered similar initial issues in the UK and South Korean markets, but management is now much confident in its expansion plans.
Overseas fast food chains don’t always have it easy. While McDonald’s (in Japan since 1971) and KFC have established a strong market locally, Wendy’s has already left and come back once under a new franchise partner in 2012. Burger King also withdrew, citing defeat in a price war with McDonald’s, though returned in 2007.
It will seat 104 diners and serve the Mexican cuisine menu that has made it a household name stateside. It will be open 10:00-23:00.
Japan-only menu items will include taco rice and shrimp & avocado burrito.
Taco Bell’s re-entry into Japan is part of a ten-year global campaign, where the chain plans to open 2,000 more branches outside the United States by 2022. So expect to see more Taco Bell restaurants popping up around Japan and other countries in the near future.
Chanel is opening a temporary Omotesando pop-up space to advertise its new Rouge Coco lipstick, which went on sale on March 20th.
From March 27th to April 5th, visitors to Rouge Coco at Omotesando can test make-up in 24 colors, as well as check out video screenings and photos. There is even a reservations-only “Rouge Coco taxi”, though we’re not sure where that takes you.
The idea is to create a whole Rouge Coco lipstick “experience” for visitors.
The space is free to enter and located just one minute’s walk from Omotesando Station exit B3 or B4.
Most interesting of all, though, is how Chanel is designing the exterior of the space. It features two giant lipstick “boxes” on the top and the three floors will be lit up in varying color tones at night.
These kinds of retail stunts can certainly generate buzz. 109 in Shibuya frequently makes use of its prominent central billboard to host eye-catching images, while the Sony Building in Ginza has a regular “art wall” project with always colorful results.
Topshop in Shinjuku did something a little similar a few years ago, decorating its entire glass facade like a Christmas present to mark the December season. Sadly, that Topshop has now closed, along with all Topshop stores in Japan.
The alternative is a Tokyo cityscape imagined without any ads or billboards.
Yesterday we introduced the iDoll, currently being showcased by ad agency Hakuhodo at SXSW Interactive Festival.
This unique in-store promotional tool is a “machine that delivers farmers’ honesty” and takes the produce section of the supermarket into the future.
Jointly developed by Suda Lab and Hakuhodo i-studio’s HACKist creative lab, the Talkable Vegetables are, perhaps not surprisingly, a world first. The voice of the farmers that grew the produce actually tells the potential consumer where the veggies are from and what is special about them.
How does it work?
By turning the voltage differential between the moisture in humans and vegetables into an audio signal, just [by] picking up a vegetable, customers initiate an interaction in which various messages can be conveyed.
This tech makes it possible for:
(1) Customers to confirm a farm product’s safety and trustworthiness by listening to the information from the farmer.
(2) Customers to get a sense of the farming environment, and the origins and values of the produce at the point of sale, no matter how removed from agricultural regions.
(3) Customers to enjoy a fun, next-generation experiences of vegetables themselves becoming part of the retail system.
Vegetables with personality? We’re not sure if this is scary or brilliant.
Clearly the infrastructure required — recording the farmers’ messages individually for each crop, special speakers set up to deliver the sound to the holder — will surely limit the application of the system, but this is one neat way to bridge the growers and the consumers. Traceability has also been a big issue in Japan of late, following a spate of food scandals in 2013. In certain supermarkets it is common to see signage and labelling directly naming the farmer and farm where the produce came from.
The system has already been tested successfully in Hug Mart, a store in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
Another exhibit at the Hakuhodo SXSWi booth is the award-winning Rice Code, an “smartphone app that turns scenes of all kinds into a sales floor”. You point the camera of your smartphone at a large piece of rice paddy art. The installed dedicated app then recognizes the art and takes the user to an e-commerce site where they can buy rice.
Today is Setsubun, which marks the start of spring in the old lunar calendar.
If you are unfortunate enough to step outside, you may be forgiven for thinking it’s still winter. That would because you’d be right — it is still winter.
But nonetheless, when the kids start throwing the beans in the springs, everyone already begins looking ahead to the spring, and spring in Japan always means one thing: cherry blossom.
Every store or brand seems to run some sort of sakura-themed during the season, even McDonald’s.
If you want to see the real thing, head to Ueno Park or one of the other top spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
And while you’re in Ueno Park, check out the Starbucks, which is going to be transformed especially for the season.
The cherry blossom interiors are courtesy of flower artist plantica and will see the Ueno Park branch and the Sakurabashi branch in Osaka re-designed for the famous bloom season. Both locations have been chosen for their association with hanami.
There are also special sakura tumblers and other cups for sale. Even the Starbucks gift cards have got the cherry blossom treatment.
This year marks the fourteenth of the Starbucks sakura series of seasonal menu items.
Convenience stores will also sell Starbucks Discoveries Sakura Latte with Strawberry drinks, while Starbucks branches will offer sakura-designed drinks and foods such as Caramel Sakura Chocolate Latte and Sakura Chiffon Cake.
The drinks and cake are available from February 15th to March 17th, while the two decorated branches will be “blooming” from February 16th in Tokyo and February 26th in Osaka, both ending in early April, as the cherry blossom season itself ends for another year.
Rakuten, the world’s most successful badly designed virtual mall, continues its march into all offline walks of Japanese life. After opening a cafe in Shibuya last year, now it offers a collection service using lockers at stations.
It has teamed up with Japan Post to set up lockers inside Tokyo post offices, as well as 50 other places around the country where customers can collect the item they purchase on the online market.
It ran a trial of the enterprise last year in Osaka and the response was good enough to expand it nationwide. There is a need for the service because sometimes people who live alone are not at home enough to be able to accept deliveries easily — they might prefer to accept a parcel from a locker near their work or college. Likewise, the Osaka trial showed that there are many young women who would prefer not to have delivery men come to their home address.
Rakuten is here using the lockers the Japan post office already offers in around 30 post offices in Tokyo for its own delivery services.
When you purchase something on Rakuten (domestic sales only), you will be able to choose the lockers as a delivery option using Japan Post’s Yu-Pack service. You are emailed a notification and password when the package is placed in the locker, and only you can input the passcode to open the locker. The lockers can hold the delivery for three days, after which unclaimed items are removed.
“Rakuten Box” sites will be set up at 50 locations around Japan over the course of 2015, including at major train terminals. These will function in the same way as the post office lockers, and will surely be popular with people who want to pick up a parcel on their way home from work or college. The lockers don’t yet have refrigeration functions so you cannot use the items for certain food or drink orders.
Currently you can already send packages from all convenience stores and also pick up deliveries at some. With this service, though, the process becomes even more private, which certain kinds of people may prefer or may prefer for certain types of orders.
The service starts in April so look out for Rakuten-branded lockers. The Rakuten Box units may also be popping up in many kinds of locations in the future. Rakuten hopes they will be installed in other shops (there is no fee) so we can likely expect to see them in convenience stores in the near future.
Image source: Tsuhan Shinbun
After wowing hipsters the world over with the first T-Site in Tokyo’s upmarket Daikanyama district three years ago, Tsutaya continues its quest to stop being the Blockbuster of Japan and be taken seriously as a sophisticated retailer: Shonan T-Site opened in mid-December, a complex of over 30 stores.
Like its Tokyo predecessor, the new T-Site in the beach resort area of Shonan, some 50km from the capital, is sleek and curated, with an uber-hip bookstore, restaurants, cafes, an Apple reseller, and even a posh FamilyMart convenience store. The same design team, led by architecture studio Klein Dytham, is behind the latest addition to Culture Convenience Club’s money-spinners.
Mark Dytham told The Japan Times: “The goal of the space is, as Tsutaya puts it, ‘cultural navigation.’ In an era when you can get everything online, what’s the point of shopping? I have 13 million Spotify tracks on my phone but don’t know what to play. Virtually everything is available on Amazon. The T-Site projects give you something you cannot get online: curation and concierges who know intimately about which section they oversee, whether it’s cars, food, travel, design, photography, fashion.”
So the white cubes from the Daikanyama complex are still here, along with the range of curated retail options. What is different is the location, of course, since Shonan is a beach area full of surfing and sun. That said, the money is still there, since Shonan is a plush area home to the well-to-do who can afford the long commute to Tokyo (think the elite families who gave us the taiyo-zoku in the 1950’s), and Tokyoites with second homes in the peninsula.
Shonan T-Site is actually part of something bigger and quite exciting — Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (FSST), a model town for the future being developed by Panasonic.
As Panasonic puts it: “[Shonan T-Site is] not a site just for selling products. It’s a base for inspiring residents and visitors to the Shonan area, nurturing new lifestyles, and making this lifestyle known to people outside the town. Lifestyles born in the town called Fujisawa SST have great potential to affect lifestyles in Japan, and furthermore, in the world.”
You can grab a coffee at the customized designer Starbucks or indulge in some designing of yourself since, following in the craze arguably started by the likes of Fab Cafe in Shibuya, you can use 3D printers and laser cutters in the upstairs lounge area, or even try out Panasonic home appliances in a special tryvertising space called Square Lab Ferment.
The Daikanyama complex was touted as an attempt to meet the retail needs for middle-aged or older moneyed urbanites in search of experiences worthy of Daikanyama — quiet, curated, expensive. That said, its demographic is always mixed, full of younger couples on dates in Daikanyama, though they may not necessarily make a purchase.
Shonan has some of this too, since the population is older and life is slower, but there are also plenty of young visitors in the summer, who may want to combine a trip to Enoshima beach with some browsing at T-Site. Look for it to get busier as the weather get warmer.
The popularity of kabe-don seems to show no sign of letting up.
After GU in Ginza “seduced” female (and male) customers by having two hunky models plant their hands on the wall to trap them in a position perfect for a smooch, now Odakyu Department Store is offering kabe-don “dream bags”.
This is a variation on the usual “lucky bags” (fukubukuro) traditionally sold by department stores and other shops during the New Year sales. You don’t know what you get, but the chances are what’s included inside the mystery bag is worth much more than the fixed price.
A big shift in the lucky bag retail concept has been that customers today can sell on the contents using internet auctions. It means there is now no real demerit to the system. If you don’t like one of the things in the bag, you can just sell it as new to another person online.
And this gets more interesting if the lucky bag includes limited edition or other special items, meaning you can sell them on at inflated prices.
Some department stores instead opt now to offer real-life “experiences” for shoppers who brave the New Year crowds, such as a hug from Funassyi (yes, that’s a real — and expensive — example).
Odakyu is offering “dream bags” for ladies seeking the kabe-don wall thud experience. All right, the department store is not actually offering instant kabe-don sessions for women right there in the store (perhaps that’s coming next year). Instead, the bags are actually meant for men (or women who want to dress their man in the image they desire). Priced ¥10,000 (around $100), the bags each contain a handkerchief, tiepin, cuff buttons, mouthwash, and perfume — the ideal set of items for a man who wants to give his lady friend a kabe-don seduction in a real gentlemen’s guise.
If you fancy trying this out, you’d better hurry because there are only five of the kabe-don “costume” bags available.
UNIQLO spin-off GU recently held a kabe-don event at its Ginza branch as a promo for a holiday season sale.
Does the idea of having a hot guy leaning up against you inside a clothes store, slapping his hand against the wall to trap you in his intimate embrace, inspire you to purchase some fast fashion?
Well, on December 5th GU had a pair of attractive Japanese guys offering just this “service” at its Ginza store.
All you had to do was head to the GU outlet in Ginza, pick one of the special holiday season items in the promo, and then ask the men if the clothes suited you. One of the hotties would then tell you how good you looked while doing a kabe-don on you.
Judging by the pictures and official video, the women were apparently pleased to have guys leaning in on them, perhaps because ordinarily they would have to drag their unenthused partners around on a clothes shopping spree. The idea of a guy taking the time to go around with them in a store — and even compliment and try to get romantic between the aisles — is seemingly a fantasy for some female consumers.
Kabe-don has been one of the trends of the year, with the Morinaga “Kabe-don” Cafe in Harajuku creating headlines for its sheer audacity (it used an artificial waiter), as well pictures of apparent kabe-don poses spreading on social media.
Kabe-don refers to a certain position where a man places his hand against a wall, keeping his female partner there so he can lean in for a smooch. The kabe part means “wall” while don is the sound of the hand hitting the surface.
At the GU event some lucky girls got both guys doing a double kabe-don on them. And this wasn’t a sexist event either, since male customers were also treated to the same experience.