Story of OWNDAYS: The Revival — Ep 8: The New Store
The opening date for the new store had been set.
This is where the new and improved OWNDAYS is making a fresh start. The time has come. When this store opens, everything will be smooth sailing. The staff will unite and national sales will go up. Franchisees will start to expand steadily, finances will get much better, and we’ll see a clear cut “V” shape on the graphs in no time. We’ll be revived and making high profits.
I would tell this to myself whenever my anxiety got the best of me, so as to waft away the haze of uneasiness that covered my head, filling me with complete despair. In my mind, I’d imagine as realistically as possible the new store becoming a success, try making myself believe it would, and then threw myself into the task of creating a concept for the new OWNDAYS, while literally robbing myself of sleep.
My usual five-hour sleep would often drop to less than three. I would take a nap whenever I found some free time and went straight back to work once I woke up. Every day was like this. But contrary to how one might react in such a critical position, the more exhausted I became, the more rewarding the whole process of creating something new became. The feeling is indescribable in words.
I had decided that the new colors of OWNDAYS would be black and white. I chose white as a key color for its feeling of cleanliness. It represents a new start. People hate to get it dirty. It enlivens moods. I chose black to give it a heavy and serious feeling. A feeling of strength and power. It instills a sense of luxury and self-confidence.
I insisted on a chic and simple monotone design to give it a mature image that would keep the wearer’s interest and withstand the test of time. But more than anything else, the most important concept behind this decision was that I wanted the only other colors resonating in the store to be that of the merchandise and the glow of the people.
I designed a new logo to go along with the colors. The square logo mark that has continued to be the symbol of OWNDAYS was a design by Kayoko Akiyama, a designer whom I had brought with me from the design company I used to run. This logo is made up of two squares, representing the O and the D in OWNDAYS. Together, they can also be viewed as both an open door and a pair of glasses. This logo captures our wish to “have everyone open the doors to a new world with their eyeglasses from OWNDAYS.”
Ryo Tamiya, a founding member of the small café I opened up when I was only twenty, designed the first new store. This was his OWNDAYS debut. Since then, he has drawn up over hundreds of OWNDAYS store interior plans and is now the manager of our design and construction team.
I ordered special shelves for the new store that reached to the ceiling and filled them with glasses to give it impact and volume. There were over 1,000 glasses on display. This was the amount we would usually stock a store that was more than triple in size. This made it fun for customers to choose their favorite frame styles. On the massive sign outside, I wrote “OWNDAYS Glasses, starting at 5,250 yen” nice and big, calling attention to our low prices. Inside the store, I played some EDM in the background that was easy to sway to.
I assigned Kazutaka Nagatsu (current manager of sales department and technical training) as the store manager. He is currently head of our entire training department, but at the time he was working as a normal staff member at a store in Ikebukuro. I had heard from Tsukada-san that Nagatsu was one of the first people to support our new reform and the first one to actively execute the new guidelines. I singled him out as the best man for the new job.
We only had a month and a half from the time we applied for the site until the opening. We prepared everything for that very day without rest, all the while carrying out reviews of our entire new business structure.
July 18th, the day before the grand opening
I was filled with a very comforting sense of accomplishment as they took down the hoarding to reveal the new Takadanobaba store. I had finally gotten to see it ― the store I had been dreaming about since the day I had taken over the company. A store that sold eyeglasses as “fashion items.” Flowers sent by friends and others related to the project lined the front of the shop. As the store filled up with people, more and more passersby stopped in front of the window to take a peek inside.
What a feeling of anticipation! We’ll be alright! This is gonna work! I thought to myself.
I was sure there would be a line waiting outside the next morning and increased the number of commemorative gifts that we would be handing out from 200 to 500.
July 19th, 2008 at 7:00 a.m.
On top of being a heavy smoker with low blood pressure, I have always been a poor riser in the mornings, ever since I can remember. Ask anyone. However, on this day, not only had I woken up way earlier than usual, I practically jumped out of bed. This was the day. The grand opening of our brand new store. I had thought of capturing the glorious moment on film, so I took a quick shower, got my things ready, gulped down some hard black coffee to smack my sleepy brain awake, grabbed my beloved Panasonic LUMIX and a tripod, hopped into Nagao’s car and I was on my way.
Just after 8:00 a.m., we were coming up to the new store. The streets around Takadanobaba Station were still empty and quiet. I got out of the car one street earlier on purpose. I had wanted to get a shot of the dramatic scene, the line of customers waiting to get in as I turned the corner. I set the camera and had my finger on the record button. My heart skipped a beat as I turned the corner in a light cheerful step. And what did I see as I turned the corner…?
No one but Akashi, Nagatsu and Tsukada-san standing out front with nothing to do.
Not a single customer was looking forward to the grand opening of the new and improved OWNDAYS. The same old uneventful scenery of Takadanobaba stood there before me. As if nothing was going on at all. I take that back. It was as if time itself had refused to recognize the store’s very existence, and just flowed right by, quietly and slowly.
I could feel my blood quickly draining from my body. I floated over towards the store, unable to sense my feet. I was overcome with the feeling that if I had lost focus for even a second, I would sink right into the ground. As I approached Akashi in front of the store, I managed to ask in a whisper,
“How’s things? No one has come yet?”
HQ Chief Haneda and Akashi, who had both helped out with the preparations of the store answered with difficulty.
“Well, yes… But there is still an hour and a half until the doors open. I’d say this is normal. They’ll start coming any moment now…”
“You handed out the flyers, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. We had ordered many and have been handing them out around the station and local apartment buildings and offices the past few days. We handed out 80,000 pamphlets and 5,000 packs of pocket tissues with ads on the back. I think we’ve done enough to get the word out.”
I was nervous and confused but had desperately held the urge to show any signs of it. I acted cool but was shaking on the inside. Okuno-san had warned me innumerous times about how failure was not an option. There was only an hour and a half left before the opening and not a single customer had come to line up.
I may have just made a fatal mistake… I thought to myself.
Thirty minutes before opening and there was still no sign of anyone coming. The faces of all the employees who had helped to get this store open flashed before my eyes and I fell into despair. That was when I got a call from Okuno-san.
“Good morning. Opening any moment now, huh! How’s the line outside looking?” he asked.
For some reason, I found Okuno-san’s usually cheerful voice today to be strangely unpleasant.
“Yeah, about that…um…customers haven’t…they haven’t really come yet. I mean, it’s still morning, so…” was the best I could come up with.
Okuno-san seemed to have sensed what was going on, from the fact that I could hardly get any words out when I would usually be mouthing off a mile a minute. He was careful going into anything. Unlike me, who was running around getting ready for the opening, he was at his desk, working away in a cool and calm manner. Every time we ran into each other, he would make jokes, like “don’t forget, if this new store fails, you and I are both homeless, ha-ha.” He probably never expected us to really fail. He calmly hung up after a short silence.
Like an ominous premonition of the rocky waters that lay waiting ahead, we set sail. The first store of the new and improved OWNDAYS quietly opened, without so much as a single customer waiting to get in, let alone any recognition from the busy morning crowd.
As I looked out towards the street, I noticed a group of men wearing suits, slightly laughing as they looked this way. They were probably in the same industry and were coming to check things out. Upon taking a better look, I noticed a familiar face. The face of a man who had been an employee at OWNDAYS until just a few days prior.
His last words before quitting were, “There is no future for this company, as long as it is being run by someone like you.”
I heard rumors that he joined one of our competitors after that. And now, he was coming back to rub it in, as if to say “See? This is what happens when a novice tries playing president of a company. It’s a good thing I got out of OWNDAYS when I did!”
I stood there, shaking in humiliation, when all of a sudden, HQ Chief Haneda and Tsukada-san, in a loud and cheerful voice, started calling out to the passersby, inviting them into the store.
“Come on in, have a look inside! Offering a variety of glasses, starting from 5,250 yen. Today is the grand opening of OWNDAYS! We have tons of new and stylish designs! Come on in and take a look! We’ve got something for everyone! Come on in! Have a look inside!”
Their cheers brought me out of my coma-like state. As I came to my senses, I joined them in their customer appeal efforts. I raised my voice, handed out flyers and pamphlets and smiled with all my heart, so as to shake off the feeling of desperation. However, not a single person stopped to listen. This made complete sense. It was the morning rush-hour. Our cheerful calls were merely empty echoes in the morning at Takadanobaba Station.
Noon finally came around and the sun grew even stronger. The rest of the staff comfortably watched from inside the cool, air-conditioned store as we stood outside, raising our voices under the blazing hot sky. I was hit with another bout of depression.
I thought I could have at least connected with the younger staff, that we were seeing eye to eye… but nope. It appeared I’d only been fooling myself…
If I had really reached the hearts of the younger staff, they wouldn’t be standing inside where it was cool and comfortable while their president and other executives were outside drenched in sweat. In other words, we had yet to see eye to eye. I had honestly thought that I was getting somewhere with the staff and I was wrong. Their unenthusiastic looks caused much more of a shock in me than the fact that we had no customers. Tears of regret, mixed with sweat, rolled down my cheeks.
In the afternoon, slowly but surely, a few costumers started to trickle into the store. Most of the passersby merely stopped to take a glance and continued walking on by. Unable to contain myself, I decided to stop one of the youths and asked them a question.
“Excuse me, I’m with a marketing research company and if you don’t mind, could I ask you why you chose not to go into the eyeglass store just now?”
Although taken back at first, they answered in a very friendly manner,
“Well… like… I hesitated to go in ’cause it seemed too chic for me…”
It felt like someone hit me in the back of the head with a bat. The style of the store was the one thing I been the fussiest about. Had it made the customers too self-conscious? Did it have the opposite effect? They continued,
“I thought the store was pretty cramped too. It felt like I wouldn’t be able to leave unless I bought something.”
These words also hit me where it hurt. The store indeed had only one doorway. There was no way to “get out.” With stores in shopping malls, there are often two, even three open sides for the customers to come and go freely. However, customers were feeling trapped with this street-level shop that had only one way in and out. You could take your time window shopping at stores in a mall, where the corridors act like secondary store space. This small 20m2 store jam packed with merchandise was in fact trying to offer what stores two to three times its size would normally offer. It was easy to see how customers would find this store too stuffy.
“Plus, I wasn’t really planning on buying anything today…”
This last comment demonstrated our biggest problem. More important than the amount of traffic walking by one’s store was the “shopping motivation” of those people. Basically, it doesn’t matter how many people pass by your store if they have no intention of buying anything. Getting them to open their wallet is a terribly high hurdle.
On the other hand, most people visit shopping malls and department stores with the intention of buying something. Their buying potential is already high. In which case, they’ll sometimes buy other things while they’re at it, since they’re already in the mindset of spending money. The traffic around Takadanobaba Station was indeed promising, but most of the people were either going to work or to school and we were standing there, shouting pointlessly at the wave of mere pedestrians, asking them to buy glasses.
Why hadn’t I realized such an obvious fact? I began to feel furious at my own carelessness. Reality started to reveal the cold hard facts that had completely escaped my expectations until it was too late.
In the end, though we managed to bring in around 300,000 yen in sales on this first day, we could barely rake in 20,000 ~ 30.000 yen a day after that. And this was only thanks to the efforts of myself, HQ Chief Haneda and other executives below him to reel in customers by standing outside for days on end. Our monthly sales topped off at a mere 1.5 million yen. Our new “money-maker” turned out to be a “money-pit.” After consecutive days of losing money, we officially had new baggage — a most tragic outcome. The new store, along with the hopes and dreams of the company’s future, crashed and burned in complete and utter failure, right off the bat.
At this point, I had lost every last bit of self-confidence I had. I myself was lost. The store with a completely new concept that we had poured every ounce of energy into and had planned so hard and carefully for until it was just right, had been completely denied by its target customers. A failure of this caliber was hard to come by.
Though I might have lacked the experience and technical knowledge needed to run an eyeglass company, what I did have, was total confidence in my understanding of customers and my ability to sniff out a good business deal. I had visited every store in the nation and thought I had a grasp on what it took to run one. All that was left was for me to make a store that I saw fit, and customers would come flooding through the doors. I was sure of it.
But, oh, how wrong I was. Now I knew, loud and clear, that this was all just in my head.
One week later, after the first sales budget came back for the first month, Okuno-san and I were having a bowl of soba noodles on the second floor at our usual spot.
“Next month we’ll file for civil rehabilitation, and I… well, I’ll probably be bankrupt…” I said while slurping on some Sarashina soba. Okuno-san was eating his own bowl, without saying a word.
“The new store was a brilliant flop. Not a single thing had gone as I had planned. No excuses. It’s all on me. I will take responsibility for everything. I’ll get the rehabilitation proceedings started for the company, and I’ll file for personal bankruptcy myself. We’ll of course make sure that our employees get their paychecks, and our manufacturers aren’t burdened. The banks, unfortunately, will have to take their losses. The company debt wasn’t mine to begin with, so they shouldn’t hold anything against me personally. This ought to make everyone happy. And you won’t have to turn your stomach over dealing with finances any more, hehe. It’s all a bit of a relief now, huh?”
Okuno-san just sat there, eating his soba in silence, ignoring my desperate attempt to act cheerful. The conversation eventually fizzled out, and there was an awkward silence. I took a sip of tea and continued talking.
“They have this wonderful thing here in Japan called ‘personal bankruptcy.’ You could have millions and millions in debt, and you just have to say ‘I give up! I can’t pay it back anymore’ and everything’s all good. It’s not like the old days where debt collectors caused hell for you. Now you just get personal assets taken away, which isn’t good for your assets, or your family, but in my case, I have no family to worry about. They can do whatever they want and it won’t faze me a bit. As long as I take responsibility for it all and declare bankruptcy, this all blows over. Just gotta suck it up and roll with it. Looking at it that way, no challenge is impossible, huh? I guess personal bankruptcy is the only weapon of the poor.”
I tried changing my attitude towards the whole situation, acting cheerful and trying to put myself at ease. Okuno-san’s face, however, turned worrisome.
“Hmmm, the courts may not recognize our civil rehabilitation and personal bankruptcy cases so easily though.”
“What? But it was you who said that if the new store flopped, we’d be bankrupt. Whether I file or not, it doesn’t change the fact that if we can’t come up with the funds by the end of the month, we’re out of business. I’m only declaring bankruptcy to make the cleanup go smoothly. There’s nothing to recognize, really, is there?” I asked Okuno-san, looking right at him with a confused face. I finished my soba and had just lit a cigarette.
“It’s not that,” said Okuno-san. “Things have changed a bit since then. The merchandise department has actually started to function properly which has changed up our profit percentage. Our top profiting stores have also started to show even more steady growth. It won’t be a walk in the park, but I think we’ll be able to scrape by this month, even with our losses at the new store.”
“Also, you remember assigning Takahashi-san who was in charge of advertising as the new head of merchandise, right? Well, he has been doing some intense negotiations with our manufacturers, and they’ve been loosening up their stances on our deals a bit. At first, when I asked them to give us an extension on payments, they said thirty days was the limit, and any longer they would have to retract their products. But since then, a few makers have agreed to a sixty-day extension.”
“That’s a blessing. So that’s a win for Takahashi-san and his persistent negotiating, huh? Yeah, I think most people would give in if he came at them with those intense eyes and logical persuasion skills of his.”
I couldn’t help but give a smile upon hearing the good news.
Takahashi-san stood out among the rest of the HQ staff members. He was a man of few words, a vicious drinker and a heavy smoker. He wore his hair all slicked back and had a slim and sleek style that was the very picture of “serious.” He had a very active and long career as a buyer in a large apparel company and had come to OWNDAYS a while back in hopes of heading merchandise. But since he didn’t get along well with the former and older executive management members, he was given a position as the head of advertisement instead. The advertisement budget of the old OWNDAYS was practically zero, however, so he had very little to do. They had outcasted him — gave him an “office by the window” with nothing to do.
One day, he suddenly came up and stood next to me at the smoking area. He took a cigarette out of his pocket, slowly lit it, took a light puff and with a look of someone who had thought long and hard, asked,
“May I have a moment with you?”
His choice of words was overly polite and seemed inconsistent with his intense gaze and large glaring eyes.
I thought, Aha, he’s come to tell me he’s quitting…
He continued, “There is something I would like to talk to you about.”
“Yes, sure, what is it? Have you found a new and promising job?”
I had asked with a hint of sarcasm, in a bold kind of way that said ‘we’ll be fine without you anyway.’
“Huh? Oh, no, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s about the merchandise department.”
“Merchandise…? What about it?” I asked.
Takahashi-san started talking with a look of puzzlement. I felt a bit let down at his unexpected reply. Apparently he hadn’t come to talk about leaving the company.
“Look. The merchandise department is useless. The way it is now, it’s as good as dead. I was a buyer at my last job and have knowhow regarding manufacturing in China. We need to be smarter with our merchandising. We are hardly even keeping track of our stock for popular merchandise and order amounts. I first joined this company because I wanted to do merchandise. Please, Mr. President, let me be in charge of the department. I will fix everything. Our negotiations with makers are also weak. We can do better!”
Usually, Takahashi-san hardly spoke at all. In fact, I never really had an idea what was going on in his head. I was surprised to see him speak so passionately all of a sudden. And to think, we had a veteran in our midst. It was like a godsend. I immediately gave him consent.
“You got it! Please! If you’ve really wanted to do it for such a long time, by all means, please do whatever you like,” I replied.
“Huh? It’s… it’s alright? Are you sure?” he asked.
“Of course. Why not? Ok, right now, from this second on, you, Takahashi-san, are the new head of merchandise. Please get to work.”
“Heh… Um, hang on, shouldn’t there be an executive meeting or an announcement from human resources, or something?”
“Why? I’m the president. I’m telling you here and now, so it’s all good. We have no time for silly antics like that, so I am officially designating you as department manager, as we speak. Now hurry up and go make a new business card or whatever and get moving.”
I gave him the OK, right then and there, as if to say “to hell with those pain-in-the-butt company etiquettes.” Takahashi-san showed a big smile I don’t think anyone had seen before, face full of wrinkles and everything. He asked for a hand shake and said,
“This is what I’m talking about! This kind of new turn in the plot! I’ve been waiting for this very thing, this speediness. I won’t let you down! Now that you have entrusted me with the duty, I will do my best to carry it out. So it’s official, I am the new merchandise department manager!”
He put out his cigarette and ran back inside the office as if time was of the essence. I felt thrilled at the appearance of this hidden talent and the fact that one more person was onboard with our reform.
Let’s bring the topic back to the soba shop. Okuno-san was having some tea and poking at the Warabi-mochi he had ordered for dessert.
“It seems that the trust our manufacturers in Sabae have for you has slowly improved,” continued Okuno-san. “Their first impression of you was, let’s just say, terrible. I mean, there were some pretty bad rumors about you out there. But then, they saw you drive around the entire country in that used car, and you even went to Sabae and talked directly to the makers and paying proper respects. The in-house reform has moved along and slowly but surely our profits have started to show growth. It seems that they have started to notice that the rumors were wrong. That you might not be that bad of a guy. I think that’s why their attitudes have started to change.”
“You never know what luck will come your way, huh? I just did what anyone would do, and they’ve changed their attitudes…? It’s probably like when you see a juvenile delinquent rescue a cat and all of a sudden they seem extra kind. Kinda like that, huh?” I laughed. “If I was wearing a normal suit and tie, with black hair, like a normal company president, they’d probably have the same attitudes and stuck in a dead-end by now.”
So, the new concept store was a total failure and we had just barely survived our first huge financial shortage, by the skin of our teeth. We had managed to get a one-month extension on some payments and were able to avert the worst possible outcome. Nevertheless, we still had no essential solution for it all. We had been temporarily kept alive and given just a short amount of time to come up with a solution. OWNDAYS plunged right into the next reform without any time to catch our breath.
Okuno-san continued with a look on his face that read “hang in there just a bit longer.”
“And one more thing, our other little project has finally gotten interesting. If things go as planned, we should be taking our next big shot sometime next week. We have no time to sit and sulk. We got another chance at bat. If you thought we were busy now, you haven’t seen anything yet!”
That’s right. We had, in fact, another top secret project in the works while we were busy getting ready for the opening of the new store. Except this one was bigger and much more reckless.
We were going to buy a whole other company.
The same size as ours.
To be continued in Episode 9