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Supermarkets win customers with whimsical performances

                                Fines Takeda market in Imari, Japan, has gone viral with performances by employees and company leaders.
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Fines Takeda market in Imari, Japan, has gone viral with performances by employees and company leaders.

Supermarkets integral to the daily lives of local residents are serving up a storm, with some attracting customers across the country and even from abroad.

The hugely popular Himawari Ichiba in Hokuto, Yamanashi prefecture, is one of them. On a mid-March day before Higan — the Buddhist holiday celebrating the equinox — the store’s speaker system repeatedly blasted the word ohagi, rice balls coated with sweet bean paste.

“They only make this ohagi for Higan, no matter how much we ask them for more,” said Himawari Ichiba President Hidekazu Nawa, in a rich voice broadcast through the store. “They’re honestly so delicious that you’ll want to eat them all year round.”

He continued his unique conversational style by telling a behind-the-scenes story about the ohagi maker.

“I told them, ‘If you sold this ohagi all year round, sales would go through the roof — that’s how good they are.’ But they told me, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. If we did that, Japanese would lose their sense of seasonality.’”

Sharing why he began the DJ-like announcements, Nawa said: “It doesn’t cost me a penny. I’m not a professional announcer or anything, but I think my talking strikes a chord with the customers.”

Nawa also puts his gift of gab to use when selling the store’s specialty, menchi katsu (minced meat cutlets), every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The cutlets, made with regional beef and pork, are popular among customers even beyond Japan’s shores.

Nawa talks to them using a hand-held microphone, to keep them from getting impatient while waiting in line.

“Are you from Switzerland? No way!” he said in an exaggerated tone, holding out the microphone to the Swiss native.

Nawa is said to have once left the store entirely to talk to a well-known former baseball player he spotted.

Nawa joined Himawari Ichiba in 2001, after being invited to join the staff by the store’s founder, while working at a market in Kofu. At the time, the store lacked a sense of personality, and Nawa began by getting employees to greet customers properly. Over time, new skilled employees joined the company, while those who disagreed with his policies left, Nawa said.

For instance, a wine connoisseur with more than 20 years of experience at a Yamanashi winery joined the supermarket and is responsible for the selection of wines from Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures.

Side dishes prepared by a former chef of Chinese cuisine are also hugely popular, and seasonal vegetables chosen by an in-store vegetable expert are available at the supermarket too.

The store’s buyers have been able to gather the best food products from all over Japan. “Our customers trust us,” Nawa said.

Former pastry chef Mari Koshikawa moved with her family to Yamanashi to work at Himawari Ichiba after the COVID-19 pandemic. She oversees the store’s selection of sweets.

Last year, Koshikawa developed a coffee pudding with a nearby coffee roasting shop and other businesses for a national television program. The puddings are available at the supermarket beside a display with her photo.

“Additive-free sweets have a shorter shelf life, and there aren’t many varieties. I’d like to develop more new products,” Koshikawa said.

Nawa puts a lot of effort into his in-store announcements because he wants to meet the expectations of his employees.

“The employees are the store’s biggest draw,” he said. “They count on me, so I have to do my best.”

Social media hit

In-store vocal and dance performances at Fines Takeda supermarket in Imari, Saga prefecture, have also proven popular.

A video of company Vice President Atsushi Takeda dancing in a green apron and sunglasses to promote fried horse mackerel and vegetable croquettes went viral on social media, attracting customers to the store from all over Japan.

Company President Satoshi Takeda also performs in the video. “Customers will trust us more if they can see the faces of the people selling their food,” he said.

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