Academia, Themed Retailing and a Trip to Tokyo

I hate shopping but I love stores.

Let me explain: Stores are amazing places where I can find a product I’m looking for and I can talk to people about its finer details; shopping is for people who visit numerous stores searching for deals on things they had no intention of buying until they saw it. Going to the store takes an hour; shopping takes all day.

I’ve always felt that shopping was a reckless waste of time and money, that one type of person goes to the store, while another type goes shopping. There’s little room in the middle for people who do both.

However, when I went to Tokyo, I spent the better part of two weeks aimlessly wandering from store to store looking for deals on stuff I didn’t need.

Yes, that is Godzilla.

My wife mistakenly thought I had turned into a shopper. For a second, I was afraid of the same thing. But when we returned home, I stopped shopping. I didn’t know what it was about Tokyo that temporarily turned me into a shopper, but retail academics might have some answers.

In academia, retail science has some conflicting messages. Studies show that customers love familiarity, but they also show shoppers remember stores that are conceptually different. While in Tokyo, I would marvel at displays of trinkets — the same type of baubles I’d walk right past in Seattle. Shopping in Tokyo felt familiar, but the presentation was new.

The research on retail science has practical applications for modern cannabis retailers, especially for those looking to establish a brand, build a cozy home atmosphere and better understand the impact their design is having on customers and employees. But nobody wants to read that academia-soaked jargon, so let me give you the gist of what academics say about retail design while bragging about an awesome vacation.


The Gist

Tightly packed vertical malls, as shown above, line nearly every major street in downtown Tokyo.

Jamye Foster co-wrote an article saying people enjoy stores with themes because they feel different, more interactive. Two years later, she co-wrote another article saying people like comfortable and familiar stores. On the surface, it sounds contradictory.

An article titled Servicescapes by Mary Jo Bitner explains that shopping experiences are produced and consumed simultaneously — a concert of design, music, customer service and products working together — and cannot be evaluated by its individual elements.

Confused? I’ll explain below.


Higher Expectations

It’s hard to avoid shopping in Tokyo because the entire 500-square-mile city feels like one big, highly competitive mall.

There was a point in my trip when I was in Shibuya (the Times Square of Tokyo) on the seventh floor of a crowded shopping mall — malls are vertical in Tokyo, because they need the space — and I could look out the window into several other, equally crowded, vertical malls. All I could think was: Why is every store in Tokyo bursting with people, while the mall in my hometown looks like a poster for economic depression?

The easy (or lazy) answer is Amazon. The United States has lost more than 400,000 retail jobs in recent years because Americans prefer clicking a mouse over leaving their homes. For the most part, the decline of retail stores in the U.S. has been pinned solely on the internet. But Japan has the internet, too. They have Amazon, AliBaba, eBay and all the same products and services we do, but as a whole, Japan has a better shopping experience.

After reading Bitner’s article and looking at my photos, I realized nearly every part of the stores I frequented were working in tangent to build a theme or, to be more precise, an orchestra. I never had to go into a store to see if it had anything I wanted; I could tell at a glance due to the design, music and lighting. I could also tell by the salespeople waiting at the front of the stores, employees who dressed and acted in a corresponding fashion to their environment — the enthusiastic, fitness store employees looked like they jogged to work; the sales people at counter-culture clothing stores looked like they want you to hear their band live but don’t care if you “get it”; employees at children’s stores looked as if they just walked off a Nickelodeon set but forgot to stop acting.

Everything in Tokyo is spotless, even this cement truck.

Having sales associates aligned with retail themes is not exclusive to Japan. In the United States, we have our share of budtenders that look like cool older brothers, and Apple is marvelous at finding people I can’t stand. But I had never seen so many small businesses with such well-defined core identities.

Bitner says because a store’s physical setting can aid or hinder employees and provide visual cues on what customers should expect, retail environments are more important to obtaining business goals than employee services.

In terms of complexity, cannabis retailers can be divided into two categories described by Bitner: the fast and lean model, designed to get people in and out efficiently, and the more elaborate model where customer interaction is more extensive. Bitner goes on and on about the different types of models, but the point is that stores should either have some type of a theme or a really, really short line.

A Peruvian-themed retail clothing store in Japan, complete with regional music and décor.

Theme and Effect

Every inch of Tokyo is spotless. There’s no garbage on the street and every store is perfectly ordered from the floor to the ceiling. I didn’t even see a dirty car while I was there. It’s daunting to think that having a surgically clean presentation is the expected price of entry for a retail store (especially if you’ve been to a Ross in the U.S.), in addition to the need for a cohesive theme. But apparently that’s what the Japanese consumer wants. Comparing Tokyo’s busy stores to the desolation of American malls, I’d wager U.S. consumers want a higher level of presentation too.

However, some U.S. stores are well ahead of the curve. In Foster’s article, she and co-author Melinda McLelland compared themed and non-themed stores. In their comparison, the themed retail stores performed better.

In Tokyo, themes are dominant. Punk clothing stores do more than just queue an apt playlist; clothes are strategically scattered on tarnished chrome hangars and in perfectly tattered cardboard boxes set against brick walls. Clothing in high-end stores is spaced widely apart in pristine set-piece displays that rise from the ground like alters to fashion. There was even an Alice in Wonderland store in Harajuku that took customers through a labyrinth of smiling cats and hookah-smoking caterpillars on toadstools to a tea party filled with jewelry and merchandise. While I don’t care for jewelry or Alice in Wonderland, I found the store irresistible and bought my wife a gift on my second trip through the store.

While I’ve talked to a ton of cannabis retailers who claim they want customers to “feel at home,” they don’t necessarily mean they want it to be a place for watching Netflix until they pass out.

Another article by Foster examines comfortable retail settings and focuses on how atmospheric elements contribute to consumer comfort and how it impacts the perceived shopping value. Another thrilling read in academia. And guess what? Consumers like comfort.

Retail competition is stiff in Tokyo, leading companies to embrace design as a way to stand apart.

Strangely, I found comfort in Tokyo Station, where roughly 500,000 people commute and shop daily (and possibly the busiest place I have ever been). The bustling terminals are constantly roaring with thousands of people crossing paths in a rush to make their trains, but the second you step inside a ramen shop all you hear is the gentle clinks of teacups and polite conversation. The same can be said for nearly all of the hundreds of stores in the station. Even with limited space and sometimes several floors below ground, the stores felt familiar with similar layouts, décor and atmosphere to their full-size counterparts.



Of course, no academic article is going to tell you how to design your store, and to be honest, I’m not going to either. But from what I saw in Japan, the U.S. can do better.

There’s a certain level of commitment to professionalism and presentation in Tokyo stores that is all too rare in the U.S. There are definitely cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan. Cleanliness, politeness and pride in one’s work seem to be staples in Japanese culture. Astonishingly, every employee I met seemed to be constantly working at being the best employee they could be at every given moment.

While we can’t undo the fabric of our oftentimes abrasive culture, we can definitely decorate it. Really, the easiest way for us to up our game is through design. Research from Foster and Bitner indicates that a well-designed store breeds both employee and consumer loyalty and generally turns a higher profit, so hiring a professional designer can help improve a retailer’s bottom line.

Also, if you like big cities, check out Tokyo. It’s pretty cool.


Ainsworth, J., & Foster, J. (2017). Comfort in brick and mortar shopping experiences: Examining antecedents and consequences of comfortable retail experiences. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services35, 27-35. Retrieved from

Foster, J., & McLelland, M. A. (2015). Retail atmospherics: The impact of a brand dictated theme. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 22, 195-205. Retrieved from

Bitner, M. J. (1992). Servicescapes: The impact of physical surroundings on customers and employees. Journal of Marketing56, 57-71. Retrieved from 


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