Plastic Ninjas, Fake Nurses, and other Chindonya Stories

This is very much an opinion piece, and not such nice opinions, either--I'm grinding an ax, so be careful the flakes don't get in your eyes. My thesis is simple:  I think makers' reps in the stores do more harm than good. I'm not saying that they're bad people or anything--some of the makers' reps are quite nice, personally speaking--but they aren't serving the customers' real needs very well. My conclusion is that the makers could reduce their costs so they could make even better products and/or lower their prices.

If that's the thesis, then maybe you can take this disclaimer as the antithesis? The substance of my disclaimer is pretty simple:  Though I was working in Akihabara for over a year, I really don't know what's going on. It's going on in Japanese, which isn't my best language, and I was just a jive part-timer, too. But on the other hand, I think I'm a pretty well-trained and detached observer. So on to the plastic ninjas!

The plastic ninjas are actually okay--just a slightly peculiar form of marketing. They weren't entirely plastic, though the swords and armor and various other parts of their costumes were obviously cheap molded plastic. Their real purpose was to help publicize the release of some new role-playing game that probably included a few ninja somewhere. The fake nurses and doctors were similar, though they were promoting a particular brand of anti-virus software. One of the large hardware makers likes monkey costumes. I remember bumping into Mickey Mouse the other day, though I can't remember what he'd been hired to hawk. These are just some randomly selected examples, but it's pretty hard to predict who or what you'll bump into on a busy weekend in Akihabara. I would have liked to include some photos of the plastic ninjas and other media stars, but given my thesis, the permissions were unlikely to be very forthcoming...

Okay, so it isn't adding any value to the product, but isn't advertising an important part of selling any new product? Yep, I agree. Actually, I don't think there's anything wrong with this kind of advertising. But there are balance points. Obviously, marching a thousand plastic ninjas through Akihabara every day for a month would be a losing proposition.

But let's consider another kind of dealer's rep. Because I've had a number of negative experiences with this dealer and this dealer's representatives, I'm going to get lowdown and nasty and name names:  Canon. While I was working on the laptop computer floor, we received the 'benefit' of a plainclothes visit by a fellow from Canon. The theory is that these people are supposed to help in the store by explaining the merits of their products.

The problem is that Canon doesn't really have much to explain. Their computers are pretty average and don't generate much interest, so the Canon rep isn't going to be deluged by a cloud of eager customers. In fact, he'll mostly just stand there looking pretty... Unless, of course, he figures out how to steal customers from other makers--from NEC the first time I noticed. Actually, Akihabara is a jungle, and the law of the jungle prevails, so that would be fine, except for one little detail:  The customers involved don't know he's working for Canon. This is called being out of uniform while fighting behind enemy lines--and such spies often receive short shrift. He finally started wearing a Canon uniform after I ragged on him a number of times.

Many of the customers come to a multi-maker retail store because they want to compare the various brands and models and prices. They sometimes talk to a salesman because they are hoping to get impartial advice from someone with wider knowledge and experience. Let's just pretend this Canon rep says something unkind about NEC computers in his efforts to swing customers over to his brand. Even worse, suppose it isn't perfectly true and that the customers find out. Not exactly the best way for Sofmap to get repeat business, is it? (And no pretense required, either, if I actually understood what I overheard him saying...)

Working in a store like Sofmap, the salesmen really do have access to a lot of information about the various types of computers. In my own case, I spent the first part of every day visiting every notebook computer on my floor, checking the various settings, tidying up the desktops, and seeing how they seemed to be running since my last visit. Of course I spent some extra time with the new models. That stuff helps, but really I got much more data and more valuable data from talking to customers about their experiences with the various makers' machines. For example, I heard a number of horror stories about early Sharps, and when I noticed peculiar problems with the new Sharp series, it seems to be part of a pattern called sloppy beta testing. Actually, Sharp's older models in the 'mature' series seem to be pretty good, and are sometimes priced attractively. Of course I was willing to sell Sharps to any customers who wanted them, but I was also willing to tell them about my experiences and feelings, and I think that is to the customers' advantage. In particular, Sharp is on my list of makers for whom I think an extended warranty is an extra good idea. (Kind of a problem there, however--if the customers are shopping on price, they don't want to pay extra for a warranty.)

Obviously, there are many kinds of customers, and I had to be pretty flexible to recognize and serve their various needs, but I think it was a powerful advantage that I was not bound to any particular maker. Perhaps the most important part of my job was to know the good and bad points of every machine, and then I could help the customers find the best matches to their real needs and desires. I was always on the alert for unusual bargains from any maker, and I think the customers appreciated it.

Time for more background about the makers' reps. What kinds are there? Whose needs do they serve? And what do they do? But remember my thesis is that they are mostly wasting the store's precious floor space and the customers' more precious money.

At one end of the spectrum, there are campaign girls [Japlish for girls hired for special sales campaigns--and actually the term appears to include some men who do the same work]. The average campaign girl doesn't seem to start with any training, but the good ones make efforts to learn about the products they are representing. Still it's obvious that they were mostly hired because they look nice in the makers' uniforms and because they'll work relatively cheaply--though that isn't so cheap when you consider Japanese wages. They normally work one or two days a week, sometimes for months at a time. They don't really have the time or interest to learn much about the competitors' products, and no one expects them to offer good comparative advice. I admit that I rather like seeing them, just like I enjoy a nice sunset or beautiful music, but what's that got to do with the customer's search for a better printer?

This just isn't the kind of rational competitive shopping that is supposed to make capitalism the best economic system. The archetypical example was when a customer's very specific requirements led me to a particular recommendation, but he liked one of the campaign girls so much that he bought her brand of printer against my recommendation. And the next week he was back in the store again so we could help him fix the problems I had warned him about. Well, at least he didn't seem to be mad at me for having been right... In fact, he was probably glad of the chance to flirt a bit more.

At the other end of the scale, some of the visiting makers' reps are regular employees of their respective maker, and they often know a great deal about their products. Sometimes they even seem to be engineers or other workers with excellent knowledge of their competitors' products, too. In contrast to the campaign girls, these reps are usually men. They can be very helpful in understanding more about their own products, and I often like to consult with them about such things as configuration peculiarities or customer reports of problems.

However, the complicated questions are rare and usually take only a couple of minutes, but they are in the store for a full working day, mostly answering very trivial questions or sometimes just moving boxes around. Just seems a shame for a skilled engineer to spend an entire day standing around so that he can actually use his highest skills for 10 or 15 minutes. And since he's being paid engineering wages, too... Well, that's not cheap, and those costs are going back to the maker who is paying him.

There are some other makers' reps that don't fit precisely in either of these categories. Software demonstrators come to mind... But all of them share the most important characteristic of knowing where their salary is coming from. They serve the maker, not the customer, and they are very unlikely to recommend a competitor's machine regardless of the real value to the customer.

So let's try a different tack. Why are the makers willing to spend so much money on this form of marketing? Of course the makers are interested in satisfying the customers, too, but that's secondary to them. Their primary goal is to sell as much of their product as they can and thereby earn profits. Since knowing what is happening in the stores helps sell, makers' reps are also doing a kind of market research. And in fact many of them do have various kinds of information forms that they fill out, with such things as availability and prices of competitors' machines.

The store is in the middle, trying to connect as many customers to the products as possible. But from the store's perspective, the crucial aspect is how much it costs to make those connections, because the store is essentially living on a narrow split between what the makers charge for the product and what the customers are willing to pay.

Let's get back to basics. The most important people in the store are the customers that make the entire system work. And luckily their needs are easy to understand--most of them are just looking for the best value. It's a little more complicated than that because judging computers is a good deal more difficult than picking melons. Every computer has a bunch of specs, and even the specs only tell part of the story.

So let's start with one of the simplest cases:  Customers who aren't really shopping between brands, but are more like car buyers who have decided on the make before they even go to the store. But even there, with the selection basically limited to a single brand, there are still various models, configurations, and options to take into account, returning in the end to what the customer wants to do now and in the future. And actually, the hardest part is that the customers often don't really know what they can or even what they WANT to do, even for some relatively experienced customers--but that's where a good salesman can be most helpful, by listening carefully and quickly understanding the 'higher' goals.

(In fact, there are some fairly successful brands that don't market their machines in retail stores. I used to feel it was a mostly a sneaky way to avoid direct competition. But now that I've left Akihabara, I see the other side more clearly... The truth is that most customers aren't really competent to judge the merits of the machines--even when all the machines are lined up nicely--, so they're trusting someone else anyway. Maybe a friend (most often), or a computer magazine, or a salesman, or--in the worst case--a maker's rep who is pretending to be an impartial guide. 'One rec equals ten specs' is my proverb here. Reading specs is hard, and one friend's recommendation will outweigh ten specifications.)

Oh, yeah. So what's a chindonya? It's a Japanese word referring to someone who acts the fool to attract customers. A one-man band wearing a signboard would be the American equivalent, and I'm glad the Japanese haven't copied that approach. Actually, most of the chindonya don't act that foolish--they are just employees of the store who stand out front shouting about the wonders within. I included them in the title because it's a popular marketing strategy in Japan and because some of my own success as a salesman was doubtless due to the Chindonya effect. 'What, a real-life talking gaijin?'