This week I have had the occasion to go into Walmart not once, but twice. The first time I had to buy a cheapie cell-phone into which I placed my SIM card because my regular cell phone is broken and the new one will be delivered on Tuesday. The second time, I agreed to buy my daughter a Barbie Doll after she did some particular difficult tasks. (Hey, bribery works – but that’s a comment for another day…) Both times, the experience was a cross between wickedly scary and awe-inspiring.
Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, according to their own hype. They do own a majority stake in the Japanese supermarket, Seiyu, the purchase of which caused it to be delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2007. Walmart, as in every country in which it exists, has a huge commitment to giving back to the community in the forms of various charities and charitable networks.
But what Walmart is still learning, from my point of view, is that every country, every culture is different. The big-box store does not fly in Japan. Costco loses money there and Walmart is not having luck with bringing its American model to the country. Japan continues to be the land of the mom-and-pop shop, where personalized service still outweighs the perceived value of the large, one-stop-shopping style-store.
When I went to Walmart today, I bought bread, milk, coffee, a set of bed-sheets, two t-shirts for my son, and a Barbie Doll. Talk about variety! Each section of the store is well-marked with bright signage hanging from what feels like a thirty-foot ceiling. Fluorescent lighting beckons shoppers in to spend money, and leaves them blinking furiously when they emerge back into the natural light outside. The merchandise is organized by color and style, in appealing displays and designs. Everything is light, airy, open, and simply humungous. When my daughter was pushing the cart around in the spacious store, we overheard a lady complaining about the narrow aisles. It was on the tip of my tongue to shout, “you ain’t seen nothin’ ‘til you’ve been to Tokyo, lady!” But I didn’t. The lady wouldn’t have cared.
In Japan, stores are small, aisles within stores are small, and the staff is kind, friendly, omnipresent, but never pushy. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw a staff member beyond those behind registers at Walmart. Shopping in Japan and shopping in the U.S. are totally different experiences, as illustrated by my Walmart extravaganza. In Japan everything is on a smaller scale and in the U.S. it is the opposite. It’s illustrative of the culture of the people. And that is perfectly fine
I find Walmart totally overwhelming these days, and perhaps I will never be able to fully appreciate a big-box store again, even after I move back to the U.S. in a few years. Hm, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It’s all about perspective and perception, and perhaps mine is changing.