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Loose Canons

by Shannon Jacobs

This is very much a personal opinion piece, and not such nice opinions, either, so I better start with an even stronger disclaimer than usual. This time I'm grinding an ax, so be careful the flakes don't get in your eyes. My thesis is simple - I think makers' reps in the stores do more harm than good. I'm not saying that they're bad people or anything like that - some of the makers' reps are quite nice, personally speaking - but they aren't serving the customers' real needs very well. My conclusion is that the makers could save a lot of money and lower their wholesale prices (allowing us to lower our retail prices).

So that's the thesis, so maybe you can take this disclaimer as the antithesis? The substance of my disclaimer is pretty simple: though I've been working in Akihabara for a while now, I really don't know what's going on. It's going on in Japanese, which isn't my best language, and I'm just a jive part-timer, too. Obviously, I can't officially speak for Sofmap, but on the other hand, I think I'm a pretty well-trained and detached observer.

Let's start with an example. Because I've had a number of negative experiences with this maker's representatives, I'm going to get lowdown and nasty and name names: Canon. Recently my section received the "benefit" of a plainclothes visit by a Canon salesman. The theory is that these people are supposed to help in the store by explaining the merits of their products. Nice theory, that.

The problem is that Canon doesn't really have much to explain. Their computers are pretty average and don't generate much interest, so the Canon rep isn't going to be deluged by a cloud of eager customers. In fact, he'll mostly just stand there looking lonely... Unless, of course, he figures out how to steal customers from other makers - from NEC the first time I noticed. Actually, Akihabara is a jungle, and the law of the jungle prevails, so that would be fine, except for one little detail: the customers involved don't know he's working for Canon. This is called being out of uniform while fighting behind enemy lines - and such spies often receive short shrift.

Many of the customers come to a multi-maker store because they want to compare the various brands and models and prices. They sometimes talk to a salesman because they have questions and they are hoping to get impartial answers and advice from someone with wider knowledge and experience. My Japanese isn't good enough to be certain, but it sure sounded like this Canon rep said some unkind things about other makers' computers in his efforts to swing customers over to his brand. Even worse, suppose the customers then have some trouble with their Canon computer that he so sincerely recommended. Not exactly the best way for Sofmap to get repeat business, is it?

Working in a store like Sofmap, we really do have access to a lot of information about the various types of computers. In my own case, when I worked on the fourth floor, I spent the first part of every day visiting every notebook computer, checking the various settings, tidying up the desktops, and seeing how they seemed to be running since my last visit. Of course I spent some extra time with the new models. That stuff helps, but really I get much more data and more valuable data from talking to customers about their experiences with the various makers' machines. For example, I've heard a number of horror stories about early Canons, and when I noticed peculiar problems with the new Canon series we received, it all seems to be part of a pattern called sloppy beta testing. Before they took that one off of display (and maybe off of the market), it was taking me up to 30 minutes to get it booted every morning. Actually, Canon's older series seem to be pretty good, and are sometimes priced pretty attractively. And I'm perfectly willing to sell a Canon to any customer who wants one, but I'm also willing to tell them about my experiences and collected reports if they ask - and of course I think that is to the customer's advantage. In particular, Canon is on my list of makers for whom I think Sofmap's extended 5-year warranty is an extra good idea.

Obviously, there are many kinds of customers, and I have to be kind of flexible to recognize and serve their various needs, but I think it's a powerful advantage that I am not bound to any particular maker or software house. Perhaps the most important part of my job is to know the good and bad points of every machine, and then I can help the customers find the best matches to their real needs and desires. I'm always on the alert for unusual bargains from any maker, and I think the customers appreciate it.

On the dark side... Er... I meant on the other side, the makers' reps know where their pay is coming from, but they have rather peculiar orders. Apparently part of the arrangement with Sofmap is that they are allowed to (or perhaps even encouraged to) help any customer with any product. If there is any sincerity in that part of it, it has to be classified as a kind of market research just short of espionage. Of course it is important to know what is going on in the stores and what features your competitors are offering that are causing you to lose sales, but I think there are other ways to get that information besides having your hired-and-partial makers' reps filling out their little spy report forms. For example, there are magazines that carefully analyze the good and bad features of lots of computers, and smart customers even pay money for those impartial evaluations. Heck, if they asked nicely, I suppose salesmen like me could tell them quite a bit, too.

Just to show the other side, Sony's reps are always proudly decked out in their company's uniform, and they clearly and strongly focus their efforts on their own merchandise. They really have provided some attractive notebooks with attractive prices, and their machines really do draw a crowd sufficient to justify having someone there to answer the questions. I admit that I still think Sofmap could provide the same support equally effectively, but it's unlikely Sony (or especially Canon) will cut their wholesale prices to reflect such savings.

Anyway, you shouldn't take this as a blanket condemnation. I'm just using Canon as a bad example because so far all of their representatives have been very annoying characters - though I'd give first prize to this recent fellow. The Japanese expression is 'Naka ga warui'n desu yo'. And as soon as this Canon guy is gone, I'm sure to knock myself out trying to sell his products. Not.

As mentioned in my last article, I'm still eager to get feedback on and reactions to my articles. I'm as close as your nearest email account - for English stuff. And as alluded to earlier in this article, I've just been transferred to the third floor of Sofmap's Chicago Store in Akihabara, where on Wednesdays and weekends I'll be studying the Japanese software world, excluding games. Since I'm basically a software guy anyway, I'm really looking forward to it - I tend to see hardware as a necessary evil ('hitsuyo aku'). Hopefully, RSN there'll even be a new International Corner there.

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

April, 1998

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN