The End Of Japanese Convenience Store

One of the best things about visiting or living in Japan are the convenience stores, those wonderful bright islands of comfort where you can get anything you need, 24 hours a day. In the early 1970s, a Japanese supermarket executive took a few months off to drive across the U.S. and got the idea to try to adapt to the American convenience store model to Japan. It was one of the best business moves ever, and Seven-Eleven Japan proved so successful, they eventually swallowed their parent company and now have 67,000 stores worldwide, 20,000 of them in Japan. But some changes are coming to the industry that could cause the end of Japanese convenience stores as we know them today.

The biggest issue is that they’re hard to staff 24/7 in a country where unemployment is basically zero and no one wants to work a shift until 5 am. This probably isn’t helped by the fact that all of Japan’s major conbini chains are attempting “strategic dominance” strategies against each other by opening so many stores that they push competition out, which means I pass about 20 Family Mart, Lawson and Seven-Eleven stores when I walk from my condo in Shinjuku to the train station.

Convenience stores are testing another new innovation: self-checkout by customers who have downloaded an app to their smartphones, which would allow you to go into a Mini Stop, wave your smartphone at the UPC symbol on what you want to buy, and just walk out with it in your bag. Imagine what retail shopping could be like in another 50 years!

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about moving to Tokyo is encountering foreigners working hard in convenience stores, which is rare in J-List’s home prefecture of Gunma. I know how lonely it can be to be living in a strange land, so I usually ask them what country they’re from and give a positive word about their country. Once I realized that both of the employees in a late-night conbini were foreigners, and I was a foreigner, and one other customer was a foreigner. The four of us started laughing because there were no Japanese people anywhere to be seen.

Here are some random tidbits about Japanese convenience stores…

  • They’re all the same, preferring to “compete by being as similar to each other as possible,” which is something Japanese banks are also very good at.
  • One exception is Family Mart, which will be launching a series of 24-hour gyms, located above their stores, in the coming years. What a great idea!
  • Convenience stores feature advanced copy machines that allow you to copy or print documents or photos. You can even get official copies of some government documents, avoiding a trip to city hall.
  • Want to get tickets to a concert, or perhaps the Studio Ghibli Museum? Go to any convenience store and use the automated ticket machine there. Convenience stores also have fully functional bank ATMs that are often the only way to withdraw cash for foreigners visiting Japan.
  • You can pay your electric or water bill by taking it to the cashier at any convenience store. You can also pay your taxes!
  • Some common products in American convenience stores are missing from Japan, such as Slurpees or Big Gulps. The Japanese are not fans of “buckets of cola,” preferring unsweetened bottled tea instead.
  • Out here in Gunma, at least, Seven-Eleven licensees in Japan are required to tear down and rebuild their stores every 10 years, which is done to require that the customer experience be fresh and new and reflect the latest store layouts. They’re also expected to have large parking lots, since long-distance trucks need a place to park while their drivers shop.
  • Of course they support all the newest “cashless” payment systems. When I buy steamed meat buns, I use my Suica card embedded in my Apple Watch to check out quickly.
  • There are “experimental niche” convenience stores. Lawson operates some stores that sell all-natural products and organic vegetables, and a “100 yen shop” chain where (almost) all the products cost $1.
  • Japan has exported its convenience store model all over Asia. In Taiwan, every third business you pass on the street is a convenience store. I was told that “Taiwanese prefer buying here instead of from vending machines because it’s much nicer to talk with a real human.”
  • Although you can buy all major manga at Seven-Eleven, the tiny liquor store that my in-laws run gets them one day early, to help protect mom-and-pop businesses from domination by large chains.

Have you visited Japan and found something special at a convenience store? Tell us what it was on Twitter!

J List Box May 2019

Every month J-List’s crack staff puts together several fun J-List Box pre-packaged boxes containing the best Japanese snacks and drinks, plus ecchi stuff, because we all need that sometimes, too. The new J-List Box boxes are up for preorder, so orders yours now!