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Business

Aeon brings Japanese customer service to Southeast Asia

Aeon employees practice greetings and bowing.

TOKYO -- Aeon is bolstering human resources training in Southeast Asia as the Japanese retailer seeks to retain talented employees and develop them into executives, helping to localize its operations in the region.

     The retail giant runs 33 general merchandise stores in Southeast Asia, as it branched out beyond its roughly 30-year operation in Malaysia -- where it has 29 locations with more than 9,200 employees -- to Vietnam and Cambodia last year and expanded further to Indonesia in May. Developing sales-floor staff is an urgent task for the company, which also seeks to enter Myanmar and Laos.

Aeon philosophy

     The Aeon Mall BSD City closes at 10 p.m., and shoppers are nowhere in sight. But a chorus of "Selamat datang" -- Indonesian for "welcome" -- echoes throughout this store in a Jakarta suburb. Aeon's Indonesian employees practice greetings and bowing at daily meetings before and after the store hours.

     Aeon believes Japanese-style training is a key to human resources development. Some 60 local managers and floor leaders, who have completed a two-month training program in Japan, serve as the main instructors at this only location in Indonesia.

     "The Aeon philosophy, such as the customer-first culture, is fully instilled," said the human resources manager at Aeon Asia, the company's regional headquarters.

     After that, the managers and leaders are sent to Malaysia, where Aeon's customer service is well-established, for two months of in-store training. They are nurtured into service experts over a four-month period.

     Employees at the Indonesian site are educated on Japanese-style service and practice from gift wrapping to cash register use.

     "It was not easy to get the Aeon way understood," said a 38-year-old manager overseeing 180 cashiers. She has answered countless questions, such as why workers are told not to fully stuff shopping bags (Bags will break if they are too heavy).

Localization

     Localization is essential in spreading Aeon's Japanese-style operation. The availability of Japanese employees is limited, and pushing the culture would cause friction.

     The day after a store in Cambodia unofficially opened last June, dozens of cashiers quit because they were too busy on the job. Aeon realized it is difficult to train people who grew up where few modern retailers such as supermarkets had existed. The company reviewed shift schedules and took measures to help workers gradually adjust to a mass-consumer society.

     Another challenge is retaining employees whom Aeon has trained. Headhunting is common in Southeast Asia. Besides pay hikes and bonuses, Aeon says its employee training trips to Japan are a popular program that helps retain workers. Managers with good performance evaluations go to Japan for a week or so of training. This trip includes a tour of Aeon's historical exhibits at the headquarters, just outside of Tokyo, as the company seeks to not only reward workers but also cultivate loyalty.

Executive prospects

     Aeon also is working to develop senior-level executives. This month the company gathered 15 manager candidates -- department managers or those in higher positions -- from six Southeast Asian countries at a hotel in Malaysia. Coming from retail, financial and other operations, they will be broken into three teams and hammer out new business proposals over six months. The candidates will be assessed for leadership qualities through competition and cooperation.

     The program will welcome 20-25 employees a year, building a large group of senior executive prospects in several years. Cross-border job assignments may be planned down the road.

     Aeon locations in Southeast Asia currently are headed by Japanese employees, except for President Mary Chu at the Malaysian unit. The leader for each country should be the person most versed in the local market, according to Aeon's policy.

     One problem with Aeon's human resources development is the low availability of managerial positions in Southeast Asia. Unless the company offers good opportunities, retaining talented personnel will be a challenge.

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