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Sunday, June 25, 2006
Smiles on retail's fastest track
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Triple-A-size batteries, cigarette packs, and evening papers with screaming headlines are all at her fingertips. Kiyomi Okita knows exactly where they and hundreds of other items are, as well as their prices and what is flying off the shelves to whom.
Okita, a veteran clerk of 15 years at East Japan Kiosk Co., a 91-percent-owned subsidiary of East Japan Railway Co., adds color to life on the Yamanote Line, with her bright red apron and ready smile whether dispensing power drinks to tired corporate warriors or fixing schoolchildren up with Hello Kitty cell phone straps.
Okita braves the weather at a tiny, colorfully crammed cubicle inside Shinjuku Station, the busiest on Tokyo's Yamanote Line loop. During her shift, which starts at different times almost daily, she is barred from sitting to chat with her colleagues. She is allowed to go to lunch and to the restroom only at designated times. Yet the fleeting moments of interaction with customers are enough to keep her going, says the 55-year-old mother of two adult children.
Familiar faces and unexpected surprises also brighten her day, Okita says, recalling a recent visit by a popular enka singer embroiled in a bitter divorce dispute.
"He bought up almost all the tabloids and hurried off," she said with a chuckle. "I guess he wanted to see how he was being covered in the press."
Then there are times when things are so hectic she can't even recognize people's faces. During the morning rush hour, she has to get orders, hand out change and restock her shelves, all at the same time. But that's when she thrives the most.
"I like being busy," she says. "I can get my rhythm going, and it's fun."
Spokesman Kazumi Okada of JR East group's retail arm, East Japan Kiosk Co., admits, though, that Okita represents a shrinking part of the company, as the giant retailer (with sales of 218 billion yen in fiscal 2004) closes down kiosks and opens more convenience stores and other specialty shops through tieups with retailers including Uniqlo, Muji and Sony Plaza.
In fiscal 2004, Kiosk sales accounted for 42.1 percent of sales, while convenience stores, dubbed Newdays, made up 28.7 percent and specialty shops 29.2 percent.
"Our customers belong to a 'convenience store generation,' " Okada said. "They want to examine the products. . . . An overwhelming majority of female customers prefer convenience stores."
In fact, the JR empire's in-station retailing business -- which spans restaurants, relaxation salons and clothing stores -- is expanding so rapidly that many retailers, especially mom-and-pop store owners outside stations, are complaining about the tax breaks awarded to in-station outlets.
Until the Yamanote Line becomes synonymous with the "Capital of Shopping," however, Okita will be there with a smile for all even as her mind is computing feverishly.
"Every day is different, and I never get tired of my job," she said. "Otherwise, I would've been looking for another one by now."