Nippon Restaurant Enterprise Co., Ltd. is a subsidiary
of East Japan Railway Company (JR East), and we have
been developing business sectors, such as food and drink
services, since the days of Japanese National Railways
(JNR) in order to make railway journeys as enjoyable as
possible. My work is in onboard sales, an essential part of railway journeys in Japan.
Cabin attendants serving customers on shinkansen,
limited expresses, and sleeper trains sell typical train meals
called ekiben (boxed lunches often with a particular style for
each line or station) as well as local souvenirs and regional
foods from trackside areas, and railway memorabilia that are
popular with rail enthusiasts and children.
Although onboard sales do come under the marketing
industry, the service element in this work is also important
because with today’s ever-diversifying service needs, it
deals with how to please the customer, how to lead on to
the next stage and how to orchestrate a railway trip with an
operator in the JR group of companies.
I would like to explain the work flow of onboard sales,
and deal with topics such as connecting with the customer, which is the true joy of this work.
|Diverse Functions and Destinations
First, most of us working in onboard sales are not regular,
full-time employees but are temporary or part-time workers. That’s what I am too.
I work for the Tokyo Trains Sales Branch in Tokyo Station;
our office usually employs as many as 140 people, some of them students or housewives, working the days and times that suit them.
We mainly sell items onboard shinkansen
and some limited expresses. We are responsible for five
shinkansen routes: the Tohoku Shinkansen which operates
as far as Shin-Aomori; the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata,
and what could be called the more ‘local’ Nagano, Akita and
Yamagata shinkansen. Our daily schedules are based on a
round trip on each of these lines so we board the shinkansen
at Tokyo Station, go to the other terminus and then return.
Naturally, the working hours vary according to the destination
and the sales method depends on the particular class of rolling stock used on the line.
Of course, the products vary with the route and season
too, but the types of customer also vary with the route, day and
time, so the products and services must meet their needs.
Between 80 and 90 kinds of products are sold on each
line. Although the sales wagons are small, they are laden
with several pieces of each item so they sometimes weigh
more than 100 kg. Mine is particularly heavy and weighs more than 120 kg fully loaded.
|Preparing ‘Store Front’
The first thing I do when I get to work is to change into my
uniform and then check the details of the shinkansen I will actually be serving.
There are many different things to check, including the
schedule (train type and number), data on sales of reserved
seats (the MARS information), number of boxed lunches and
souvenirs loaded at each station, various other important
points, and sales figures for the previous day. Each crew
member always checks these things every morning.
Once the check has been completed, I make my
departure roll call where I confirm the departure times and
reservations, and do a final check for when we leave.
Once this roll call is finished I start preparing my sales
wagon, which means attractively displaying between 80 and 90 items. The best-selling products vary according to the
time of day. Because customers’ needs vary not only with
time but also with day, season, and line, I adjust the daily display with different numbers of products.
The ekinaka marketing plan (see JRTR 56) now used
by locating many stores inside the ticket wickets of larger
stations draws customers’ attention to a diversity of products
using various clever sales angles and we must operate
within this sales environment too. To compete with stations,
in addition to having an attractive product line-up, it is
important to arrange products carefully and attractively to
whet the passengers’ interest so they reach for products as we walk by.
I spend as much time as I can on this. Even before
meeting the passengers onboard, I prepare by consciously
observing people heading to the shinkansen that morning,
on the lookout for hints that will give me some idea about
the needs of that day’s customers. If it is especially hot, I
might display more cooling drinks more prominently; I draw
on my daily experience, and think about the coming day’s customers when I display the products.
|Making Customers Feel Comfortable
The first thing I do onboard the shinkansen is to greet the passengers.
There are all kinds of people; on weekdays, they are
mostly businessmen but on weekends there are more families.
However, they are all people I am meeting for the first time—
people of different ages, genders and nationalities and with
different purposes for their trip. I do not know any of them
and I think it is this very fact that paves the way for the ‘brief
meetings’ and ‘once-in-a-lifetime encounters’ that can only
be had here, and it is why I want passengers to enjoy their
shinkansen experience fully and have a pleasant journey.
It is not just the quality of the onboard facilities that
makes a journey enjoyable—other factors, such as the attentiveness of the onboard staff and the availability of
unusual local foods, can make a journey really memorable.
Recently, the service industry is emphasizing customer
satisfaction (CS) and customer delight (CD). These are
ephemeral feelings that a customer might not get if the
service is always the same however good it might be, so
excellent service is constantly evolving.
I often hear overseas visitors say they are delighted by
the high quality of service in Japan but Japanese always
expect some degree of good service as the norm, so the
same good service day-after-day does not generate CS
and CD. In other words, run-of-the-mill service does not
continually please the Japanese customer.
This is why I think it is important to foresee the customers’
needs, so I prepare thoroughly before coming face-to-face
with them using a sales plan mapping out how I will work my
way through the carriages and what I will sell to which kind of
people. Then, as I push the wagon along the aisles, I observe
the passengers closely to see the kind of people they are and
grasp the nature of what it is that they might need.
However, an important point to remember when doing
this is to check unobtrusively. A lot of Japanese are shy and
some passengers look downwards out of shyness. I look
not only at their faces, but also at their clothes, luggage and
what they are eating, and I tune in to their conversations.
Doing this enables me to make the first approach rather than waiting for them to call me.
Mind you, my predictions and preparations are not
always on the mark. In this case, I swiftly make alterations
and revise my sales plan according to the needs.
I put products that will sell at the front, of course, and
make various other alterations such as changing how
I recommend products that will suit the customer, or changing my itinerary according to the situation.
My aim is to make passengers feel comfortable.
|Creating Customer Rapport Naturally
However, there is more to do in order to make the customers
comfortable. It is very important to be an approachable
person who can create an atmosphere where it is easy for the passenger to buy something.
What do you have to do to become such a salesperson?
First, I try to create a rapport with the customers in the short
time available by showing my face time and again.
When I do this, passengers naturally come to remember
my face and voice, and see me interacting with other people.
This becomes imprinted in their minds without them realizing
it and I gradually become a familiar face. With time and
familiarity, some passengers become more relaxed, their
faces gradually soften and they speak openly to me.
A similar process happens to me too. At first, I cannot
fully relax in front of passengers but they gradually become
imprinted in my mind without me realizing it and I get the
feeling of knowing the people in the seats.
The thing is to show myself time and time again, and
not just show myself but observe them to find out the kind of
people they are, and make them aware of me as a person.
It is important to speak loudly enough that passengers
notice me but be careful not to speak too loudly and disturb
them, and to make myself visible to as many passengers
as possible. Making an appearance not only create sales
opportunities but also creates a closer rapport as I become a familiar face.
|Customer Feedback is Key
However, even if passengers are interested, they won’t buy
unless there are attractive products. I think that one role we
play is helping with the discovery and development of new
products. Although we don’t make the products ourselves
since we come into direct contact with customers, we can
recognize their potential needs and link this awareness with attentive service. We often get hints from the opinions and comments we hear from the passengers.
For example, on the shinkansen, we sell ekiben
lunchboxes featuring local specialties from along the line.
These special lunches are loaded at each station and sold
onboard but we sometimes find that the product line-up tends to become a little one-sided.
Beef is a specialty of Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture,
so of course a boxed lunch featuring beef from locally reared
cattle is popular and most of the boxed lunches loaded at
Yonezawa Station feature beef. This generally delights most
passengers, but some regular travellers on the line say, ‘I’m
fed up with just beef’ or ‘I’d like a boxed lunch that includes
a variety of foods’. However, since we’ve only prepared
beef lunches, we cannot meet their wishes and they are left
disappointed. All that we can do is recognize that we have
let such customers down and apologize. However, I think
that we shouldn’t simply feel bad and then do nothing about
it, so I decided to take action and instead of saying ‘other
boxed lunches don’t sell as well’, decided to make boxed
lunches that would sell by using other local products that
would help revitalize local communities by showcasing local foods that cannot be got elsewhere.
|Getting Things Moving
I realized that a vague request for another style of boxed
lunch might not produce something that really met
customers’ needs and would also inconvenience people
who make them. Consequently, I decided to visit regional
specialty shops and events in Tokyo department stores,
search on the Internet for information, and consult with the boxed lunch makers.
The main dish I suggested was a deluxe burger made
from Yonezawa beef. I also suggested nikujaga, a traditional
Yamagata stewed meat and potato dish that I got to know when I started this job.
At first, the boxed lunch maker frowned on the idea of
including home cooking like nikujaga in an ekiben, but I pleaded
that it was bound to delight visitors from other prefectures and
that it would also be ‘comfort food’ for local passengers.
Then there is a wiener sausage made in Takahatamachi
in Yamagata which has won gold prizes in Germany. I also
got a Japanese-style confectioner who makes a popular
stuffed rice cake called toge no chikara mochi sold on
shinkansen to make an original bite-sized Japanese sweet.
The main thing was to get things moving. I felt that by
taking action and gathering up various hints I would get
closer to the customer in real terms rather than just sitting at my desk racking my brains.
I incorporated the opinions of many of my colleagues as
I set to work on creating a special ekiben, hoping it would bring a smile of delight to customers’ faces.
Since we had taken a lot of effort to create a special ekiben,
I wanted as many customers as possible to understand the
careful selection that had been made.
However, I didn’t think it was sufficient to just insert a
menu. Recently it’s common to find a menu inside the boxed
lunch but, personally, I rarely glance at them.
I thought hard about how to make a menu that customers
would actually look at and then I suddenly remembered a colleague who was good at drawing.
‘That’s it! I’ll get someone to draw it!’ I thought an
illustrated menu introducing the product would probably catch people’s attention.
We all worked on the wording to produce a very attractive
and effective menu but because we had taken such pains
with the contents of the boxed lunch we also wanted to get the name just right.
I decided to use the Yamagata dialect. Dialects in the
northern Tohoku region have a warmth and gentleness to
them, and the Yamagata dialect is no exception. I’m from
Tokyo but getting this involved with the Tohoku area means
that I naturally pick up its words and expressions. However,
I hadn’t learnt harakucchi, which was to become the name
of the boxed lunch. I found it on the website of a Tohoku
elementary school and the cuteness and warmth of this
expression meaning ‘full up’ resonated with me. Local
dialect was being introduced as part of the chidren’s class
work. In this way I found the perfect name for this carefully created ekiben.
This makunouchi bento contains rice and many different
local dishes, and two versions are produced during the year.
One is a summer version that offers customers seasonal
dishes. I think that with the right ideas it will evolve into an even better and more attractive product.
In material terms, it incorporates a range of items, but I
think the most important part is the thought that went into it.
We all pooled our ideas and worked hard to create this
product, and the joy of directly providing customers with an
ekiben we are proud of is something that cannot be felt when
just selling a product that has been provided by someone else.
The very special nature of the harakucchi means that it
is only produced in limited quantities for sale onboard the
shinkansen. Even so, some regular customers look forward to it on their journeys.
|Figure 1: Harakucchi Illustration Flyers