Thursday, December 12, 2013

Memories of Japan: Door-to-Door Sales

I don't know what this guy is selling, but his red tie
and big smile just scream "salesman" to me.  I
noticed that salesmen in Japan tend to wear bright ties,
often with very loud designs.
Today is Thursday, December 12, 2013.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, the vast majority of Japanese housewives stayed at home, which made it very easy for door-to-door salesmen.  I have a feeling that's why door-to-door sales worked so well in the 40s and 50s here in the United States.  The women were at home, and women can be easier to sell to than men.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is because the salespeople are men, though.  Many door-to-door salespeople in Japan are women.

Even as late as 1994, door-to-door sales accounted for 60% of all sales in Japan, and I read a blog entry of a foreign wife in Japan dated 2009 that talked about how pervasive door-to-door sales were.  I also read, however, that the growth of door-to-door sales began to flatten out in Japan in the late 90s, the reason being that women in general are marrying later, and more and more women are choosing to work outside the home, not just for "women's lib" reasons, but for economic reasons. Mail-order business, by comparison has grown at double-digit rates.

Just about anything you can think of is sold door-to-door in Japan.  Cleaning supplies are big.  Amway has the fifth largest sales of a majority-foreign-owned company in Japan, and I know a lot of "foreigners" who are in the Amway business over there.  I was approached, myself.   Avon had a successful, publicly listed subsidiary in Japan until it sold out to a Japanese company at a high price in the late 1980s.  I have no idea why they decided to sell.

Newspapers are still sold door-to-door, as are educational materials and insurance.  But that's not all. 

You thought I was kidding, right... about the
little squiggly things.
A Japanese woman told me that early in her marriage, when she was very young, she was persuaded by a saleswoman to buy a whole case of condoms.  I have no idea how many boxes there are in a case or how many condoms there are in a box, but suffice it to say she bought a lot.  When the woman told her husband about the purchase, his comment was, "Well, that's fine if you don't mind not eating for a while."

He helped her get the company to give them a refund for some of the obviously unopened condoms, but she said, "We had a lot of condoms for a long, long time." 

And just in case you think I'm making this up, I was visited by a condom saleswoman, myself.  Since I was a foreigner, she must have figured I had very exotic tastes, so she didn't even bother to show me the standard models.  She got right to the good stuff:  condoms in all shapes and colors, with bumps and squiggly things sticking out.  I'm not kidding.

At first, I didn't understand what she was telling me, so she opened this three-ring binder.  Inside were clear plastic pockets  into which she had put her condom samples.  I told her I didn't need any.

She said, "You know, the Catholic church says these are all right to use."

"I'm not Catholic," I protested.

"They're safer than the pill," she countered.

"I'm not on the pill."

"Then you need something..."

"No, actually, we're trying to have a baby."

She finally went away, but not before suggesting that I might need some later and giving me her card.

It's harder for Japanese to keep salespeople out of the house because front doors are not generally locked during the day, and the genkan, or entryway of the house, is considered a "public" area.  This means that anyone can just come right in, stand in the genkan, and shout, "Sumimasen!"  (Excuse me!)  By the time you get to the genkan, they've got their samples out and they're ready to make their pitch.  

Even if you keep your door locked, salesmen will ring the doorbell, bang on the door, or yell through the letterbox opening in the door.  Of course, salesmen know their area pretty well, and it's a sure bet that they know where the foreigner lives.  Lots of people will use any excuse, any excuse at all, to spend a few minutes practicing their "Engrish" with a foreigner, which gives them the right to brag about it later.

Japanese medicines
Okigusuri is a very old way of selling over-the-counter type medicine (kusuri) in which a selection of products are left in a home or office without payment or deposit. You use only what you need and pay for only what you’ve used. This sales method is called senyō kōri (use first, pay later). I've seen this "honor system" used in the United States, as well, but only rarely, and usually for gift items that someone is trying to sell in the workplace. Americans just don't trust each other that much.  I have always been surprised at how trusting the Japanese are of each other.  I once went out for lunch while working for Berlitz language school as an English conversation teacher and came back with a story about an ambulance that had a hard time going through an intersection because the drivers wouldn't let him through.  When I told my Japanese boss this, his comment was that the drivers must have been gaijin (foreigners).  "Of all the foreigners you know," I asked him,  "how many drive a car?"  He was stumped.  The point of the story, of course, is that the Japanese just seem to trust that other Japanese will behave well, even in the face of evidence otherwise.

Homes aren't the only places where door-to-door sales are done.  I learned that the hard way.  One summer, I went back to the United States for a long visit, partially to attend my youngest brother's wedding, and partially to just visit family and see whether I was still American. I stayed two months.

When I got home, I noticed a new suit with a tag still hanging on it.  It was the ugliest suit I've ever seen.  I thought that then, and I still think that.  It was dark olive green, with white, brown and burnt-orange pinstripes.  Very "seventies," I guess, but really horrific, and the colors didn't do a thing for him.  I told him that he should take it back, since the tag was still on it.   That's when he told me that a door-to-door tailor had come to his company office and measured the guys for suits.  Each guy picked out his own fabric, so the fabric was his choice!  Since the suit had been made to his measurements, it couldn't be returned.  That suit hung in the closet for the rest of our marriage, which wasn't that many more years.  I have no idea what happened to it after the divorce, but I sincerely hope it made it to the dump.   Meanwhile, we didn't have as much money in the bank as I thought we might when I got home. 

There are blog entries online that tell other stories.  Not only are door-to-door salespeople allowed to sell to company employees in office buildings; they are also allowed to come into schools and universities to sell to the teachers.  I've heard of "snack carts" that come to some offices at certain times during the day to sell concessions, but they don't approach people at their desks.  One foreign middle school instructor wrote about buying a waffle from a guy, just because it was so ridiculous.  He said that his middle school has 4-5 traveling sales pairs a week.  (Apparently, they almost always work in pairs nowadays.)   Besides snacks, they sell track suits, jewelry, and travel packages.  The salesmen come right into the teachers' work area and make themselves at home, apparently.

I should explain that Japanese teachers' desks are in a teachers' work room that doubles as a lounge.  There may or may not be a desk in the front of the classrooms, but they are not permanent desks for teachers.  My Japanese teacher friends tell me that they get much more planning time at their desks, away from the kids, than the standard 50 minutes in an American teacher's school day. 

The foreign teacher also wrote that he could tell which salespeople the school principal liked by how often they appeared, and how quickly the "tea lady" was instructed to get them some tea.  (I'm going to talk about this some more later, but for now, yes, one of the duties of a secretary is to make tea for guests.)  Whether anyone buys anything or not, the salespeople always leave pamphlets and brochures.

In the interest of fairness, I have to say that I've been approached by salesmen in the schools where I worked in the United States, too, but only once was I caught at my desk, and it was by a textbook company rep who breezed by one morning to leave me a sample and his card.  At least he was selling textbooks.  They had insurance salesmen, too, but those guys always camped out in the teachers' lounge, which in the United States is mostly empty except at lunchtime.  Teachers are told in advance that the rep will be there during certain times, and that they can check in with him or her during their prep.  I always made sure not to go to the lounge during my prep on those days.

I think Japan is like other countries, though, in that the advent of credit cards and the Internet has made it possible for people to shop online, and door-to-door sales is surely losing its appeal.

Standard bank employee unifirms.  Each bank
has a unique one.  Women's uniforms include
both a blazer and a vest.
One other type of business was done door-to-door when I lived in Japan, and that was banking.  A young man or woman wearing a recognizable company uniform would come to your door and ask if you had any money to deposit.  If so, you could give them the cash and your bank book and they would make the deposit for you.  Can you imagine that?  Nobody in the United States would ever give over their cash and their bank deposit record.  But we did, and the person would come back the next day with the deposit duly recorded in the book. 

I remember that my sister-in-law Kasumi's husband had suffered a debilitating accident at the plant where he was working as a supervisor.  He got too close to the machinery at the factory where he worked, and his clothing was caught in a gear.  His spine was severed, resulting in his becoming a quadriplegic.  With the characteristic care for their employees' lifelong welfare, my brother-in-law's company kept him on their employee roles and paid him a regular salary for several years, until he was finally released from the hospital . At that time, three men from the company visited my brother- and sister-in-law and basically gave them a once-and-for-all cash settlement that was enough to allow them to have a house built.  Quite a lot of cash, and it was kept in the house for a day or two until some men from the bank came by, bowing and scraping because of the size of the amount of money that was about to be deposited.  The men from the bank were given the cash, and my brother- and sister-in-law were given fancy customer appreciation gifts.  (This was common practice back then, but the gift given in exchange for a deposit was usually a little packet of tissues or something small.  The gifts my in-laws got were quite ostentatious, although I no longer recall what the gifts were, exactly.)  :-)

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