Uncanny Grins: Tokyo Discount Store Employees Don “Smile Masks” to Brighten Business
The need for store staff to wear face coverings and take other precautions against the coronavirus can make shopping feel somewhat impersonal. But one Tokyo business is staying true to its mantra of service with a smile, albeit in an unusual way. The discount retailer Takeya, located in Ueno near JR Okachimachi Station, is equipping employees with special masks printed with beaming grins on the front.
Rather than relying on a comic rendering, Takeya’s “smile masks” bear high-quality photographs of an actual face, creating an uncanny realism that has customers doing double-takes.
The unusual masks sprang from a broader initiative at Takeya to improve customer service while also safeguarding employees against COVID-19. According to one member of the project, the masks were inspired by the desire to share smiles while serving clients, something impossible to do while wearing a face covering.
Early prototypes of the smile masks featured hand-drawn grins, but team members scrapped this approach over concerns such as hygiene and quality. Through trial and error, project participants hit upon the idea using printed images of actual smiles to lend a sense of reality. The masks are so realistic, in fact, that some customers are fooled into thinking that there is a screen in the front of the coverings enabling staff to display their pearly whites.
Rather than customize masks with the smiles of each individual employee, Takeya created male and female versions. Two project team members, a man and a woman, had the honor of serving as models. Although the pair are pleased to have been chosen, they admit that it can feel strange at times to come face-to-face with their own grins.
Attention to Detail
From the start of the project, Takeya wanted to avoid creating a novelty feeling and instead aimed for the face coverings to give the impression that wearers were actually smiling. Project staff tweaked the design of the masks repeatedly before settling on a final version, meticulously adjusting the image of the smile by millimeters in one direction or another until the positioning felt natural.
Project members say it took around three weeks to come up with a mask that everyone was pleased with. During that time staff shared a broad range of ideas and opinions but remained focused on the final goal of restoring smiles to the store’s service floor.
When the smile masks were finally unveiled, they met with mixed reactions from staff. However, employees quickly warmed to the coverings and even started snapping photos of each other in the masks and arranging different ways to wear them.
Takeya considers the smile mask project a success, but the response from shoppers has run the gamut from amusement to unease to fright. However, overall customer reaction has tended to be positive, and it is not unusual for people to ask to take selfies with “smiling” staff members.
The masks have also been a topic of discussion on social media, and Takeya says there has been interest from customers in buying the coverings.
The company is planning to make both versions of the smile masks available to the public soon and is currently accepting preorders through its website. The masks are priced at ¥550 each.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on August 23, 2020. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)
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