The Word Works

Consuming Japan

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Specialty Stores and Jacks of All Trades

Published By: wordworker on 05/22/06
Categories: Marketing

Specialty shop or jack of all trades, what’s a retailer to do? Thoughts from the Value Management Institute’s Michi Shioya.

“Perhaps it was staying home during Golden week. The rebound was ferocious. I felt sharply the sinfulness articulated by such sayings as “Too much is as bad as too little” or Muda, muri, mura (wasteful, over the top, too inconsistent). 

“From spring through early summer the streets are filled with the color black. You see “Freshmen” (students and new hires) all over the place. They all look so sharp and determined. It’s sad that after a little while they will fall into familiar corporate habits and disappear from sight.”

This is the way Shioya begins his VMI Genki Mail Bulletin Board, No. 95. The style is very Japanese, starting with a reference to the season and seasonal events. In this particular season, new seasons and new hires remind us of a recurring debate in recent years: Which is better for a company, the generalist whose flexibility makes him easy to move from job to job, acquiring the experience that will make a good manager, or the specialist who brings valuable skills to one particular job? Mostly this debate concerns new hires employed by large corporations. Shioya relates it instead to the restaurant and retail industries and notes the difference between starting a business in a big city versus starting a business in a town in the countryside.

“Recently I visited a small city in the countryside. Arriving just at noon, I looked for a place to eat. In front of the station, I found one of those sushi-tempura-eel, a bit of everything restaurants. I entered not knowing what it was they were trying to sell. As someone whose business [as a marketing consultant] is to ask about strengths, weaknesses, and what a business is trying to sell, I wasn’t hoping for much from a place whose appeal was so unclear.

Given the population of a town this size…

“Those words express the owner’s true sentiments. In big cities with lots of people, the market is lodge. Yakitori bars, ramen shops, boutiques that specialize in children’s clothes can all find a nitch. The farther you go into the country, the harder that kind of specialization becomes. Where the market is small, a business is forced to become a jack-of-all-trades. Virtual businesses that sell things via the Web can be more specialized, but for service industries like the restaurant business this kind of specialization is hard.

 

Why then are there so many lousy ramen shops in big cities?

“Ramen shops in big cities are often disappointing. Their menus are full of tasteless choices in all three genres: soy sauce, miso and salty. To which they add their own specialties.

“In a big city, however, you can specialize and even if your location isn’t that good, you’ll get some customers, and the best places always have suprisingly simple menus. That simplicity allows more efficient use of ingredients and also allows the staff the time to provide good service.

 

Multiskilled workers in the countryside

“Specialization isn’t always a good thing. When the market is small, the cooks have to be able to prepare sushi and temura and eel. There is no other way to satisfy customers with diverse tastes. So the cooks become multiskilled.

“Multiskilled carpenters are absolute treasures in the homebuilding business. Specialization in big urban markets means that work is divided so far that it takes a hundred different individuals to do what one countryside craftsman can do.

“Increasing specialization has long been important in corporate strategies. There is, of course, the danger that employees who can do everything don’t do anything very well. Still, there are times when multiskilled workers are essential. The kind of workers who learn their trades in restaurants and other types of businesses in the countryside.”

 

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