Supermarkets Win Hearts of Customers with Unique Staff, Performances; Store in Hokuto, Yamanashi Pref., Goes Viral

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Himawari Ichiba President Hidekazu Nawa touts tasty ohagi with a microphone in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, in March.  2.

Supermarkets that support the daily lives of locals are serving up a storm. With their unique features and atmospheres, these supermarkets attract customers across the country and also from abroad.

The hugely popular Himawari Ichiba in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, is one of them. On a mid-March day before the Higan equinoctial week, the store’s public address 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,” Himawari Ichiba President Hidekazu Nawa, said in a rich voice into a microphone. “They’re honestly so delicious that you’ll want to eat them all year round.” His strong voice was reminiscent of the kind you hear at fish or vegetable market auctions.

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.’”

Speaking about why he began the DJ-like fast-paced 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,” he said with a smile.

Nawa also puts his gift of the gab to use when selling the store’s specialty menchi-katsu minced meat cutlets every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The cutlets, made with Matsusaka beef and Kagoshima pork from kurobuta (black pigs), are popular among tourists from inside and even outside Japan.

Nawa talks to the customers through the microphone so they don’t get sick of waiting in line for their turn to buy the cutlets.

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

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

He joined Himawari Ichiba in 2001 after being invited by the store’s founder while working at a market in Kofu. Since the store lacked a sense of vitality at the time, 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 winery in Yamanashi Prefecture joined the supermarket and is responsible for the selection of wines from Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. Among the more popular wines at Himawari Ichiba is one priced at more than ¥10,000.

Side dishes prepared by an employee who used to be a chef of Chinese cuisine are also hugely popular, and seasonal vegetables chosen by an in-store vegetable sommelier 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 Prefecture to work at Himawari Ichiba after the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she oversees the store’s selection and purchase 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 point-of-purchase display with her photo and introduction.

“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 in-store announcements because he wants to meet the expectations of his employees.

“The employees are the store’s biggest appeal,” 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 showing Vice President Atsushi Takeda in a green apron and sunglasses promoting fried horse mackerels and vegetable croquette while dancing went viral on social media, attracting customers to the store from all over Japan.

President Satoshi Takeda also performs in the video. “Our supermarket is a place that sells ‘safe food.’ Customers will build trust in us if they can see the faces of the people selling their food,” he said.

Courtesy of Fines Takeda
A performance by Fines Takeda employees