Japan Glances

Convenience Stores in Japan

Society Culture

Japanese convenience stores—known as konbini—offer food, drink, and daily products as well as a wide range of services, including allowing customers to pay utility bills, buy event tickets, and pick up delivery items.

A Huge Market

Japan imported the convenience store model from the United States in the 1970s. This style of store has since taken firm root, and there are now over 50,000 outlets around the nation. In 2015 these combined for an annual turnover of more than ¥10 trillion, according to figures from the Japan Franchise Association. The highly competitive market for the stores—popularly known as konbini—is dominated by the big three of Seven-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart.

The vast majority of konbini are open 24 hours a day, all year round. They sell a wide range of food and drink, including freshly made rice balls, salads, sandwiches, and bentō lunches. The big three in particular compete to supply store-brand products at reasonable prices. Typically shops also stock daily necessities like cosmetics, bathroom supplies, cleaning products, stamps, and stationery. Other items on shelves may also include books and magazines, socks and underwear, pet food, mobile phone chargers, and postcards.

Onigiri rice balls and packs of sushi.

In addition to stocking a wide range of products, convenience stores also provide numerous useful services. Shoppers can pay their utility bills or taxes, reserve and pay for entertainment and travel tickets, use photocopiers and printers, and pick up parcels from online retailers. Most stores make restrooms available for customers—although this is less common in busy districts—and many konbini have ATMs. At Seven-Eleven, tourists can use foreign cash and credit or debit cards to withdraw Japanese money from Seven-Bank machines, which offer onscreen instructions in English and other languages.

A Lawson store in Osaka.

Seeking an Edge

Convenience store chains are constantly experimenting with new products and services in a quest to retain a competitive edge. They may seek to drum up business through prominent advertising campaigns for specialized variations of products like doughnuts, fried chicken, or ice cream. Some konbini have eat-in areas where customers can consume their purchases. Tie-ups with celebrities and popular characters are also a common way to draw in customers.

Inside a Seven-Eleven convenience store.

A matcha latte only available in convenience stores.

In another recent development, many chains are targeting seniors with food delivery services. In June 2015, Lawson began a service in collaboration with Sagawa Express, delivering to addresses within a 500-meter radius of its stores. Seven-Eleven has a similar business partnership with Yamato Transport, while FamilyMart operates the Takuhai Cook 123 delivery service through a subsidiary.

Coffee has been another area of fierce competition as konbini try to win customers away from specialist shops by offering similar quality at lower prices. In 2013, Seven-Eleven launched both iced and hot takeout coffee with prices starting at just ¥100. The service was hugely popular, selling 500 million cups in the first year, and was soon copied by other chains.

A convenience store coffee machine. (© Jiji)

Chains often introduce new variations on their basic model through trials in a limited number of locations. For example, Ministop has opened several café-style stores in Tokyo under its Cisca brand where customers can buy high-quality deli items and alcoholic beverages and consume them on the premises. Meanwhile, FamilyMart has a number of integrated stores that share premises with other businesses such as pharmacy Kusuri Higuchi, video rental and bookstore giant Tsutaya, and karaoke chain Karaoke Dam.

Ubiquitous in urban and residential areas, the convenience store has become essential to the daily lives of many across the nation. In whatever form, it is set to remain a part of the Japanese landscape.

Photo credits:
Banner photo: David A. LaSpina
Onigiri and sushi: Connie
Lawson store: Jonathan Pellgen
Seven-Eleven store: Japanexperterna.se
Matcha latte: Non Non

convenience store retail