Walking into the Higashiosaka Minami-Kamikosaka branch of the massive convenience store chain 7-Eleven, I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic to the mom-and-pop shops of my home country. Those kinds of corner stores aren’t as common in urban Japan. Here, the convenience store industry is largely occupied by major chains that barely have enough room to grow themselves, let alone give independent stores enough space to survive.
The shelves were sparsely stocked and the staff wore civilian clothes while working a portable cash register. This was a far cry from the pristine but demanding conditions of a regular Japanese conbini chain where even a few gaps on a shelf or slight appearance of casualness among staff is frowned upon.
Also, this was because the Higashiosaka Minami-Kamikosaka 7-Eleven was technically not a 7-Eleven any more.
This particular store has been the focus of nationwide news for over a year now, after its owner Mitoshi Matsumoto took it upon himself to not be open 24-hours a day due to a lack of staff. This angered the head office who threatened to terminate their franchise agreement, thus sparking a debate over the working conditions of convenience stores in general.
The dispute continued in various forms until Dec 31, 2019, when the franchise agreement between Matsumoto and 7-Eleven was ended by the company, saying they received too many complaints from customers. The cancellation was challenged by Matsumoto, and the case is currently in the courts.
The closure was widely covered by media, showing the owner marking down all of his goods for a clearance sale. At that time, it was reported that he would continue to run the store in 2020, but as an independent business rather than a 7-Eleven franchise.
However, when the store reopened on Jan 3, many were surprised to find that the 7-Eleven signs were still up and Matsumoto, along with his two remaining staff members were still wearing uniforms.
“I still think this is 7-Eleven,” he told media, adding that while the contract is still in dispute it cannot be cancelled.
This created an odd situation. The store was technically open, but completely cut off from the 7-Eleven system. The ATM was shutdown, no fresh food was delivered, and the cash register stopped working. The people, however, continued to sell. The store had gone rogue.
I decided to visit the unique convenience store myself to find out what was going on. Outside was a poster declaring that a sale was being held to clear out all the stock before the store closes down due to litigation and announcing the new business hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
▼ The sign appeared hastily written and lacking any of the formalities almost always found on a storefront notice.
Large swaths of the shelves were bare, but an ample supply of snacks and drinks were still being sold, and fried food like corn dogs and chicken were still available. A small-but-steady stream of customers were coming in and out as well and filling up baskets with the discounted goods.
I was able to have a few words with Matsumoto himself, and I asked the obvious: “What’s going on?”
“Basically, we’re just selling off the stock until the dispute is settled,” he told me. “After that, if the court decides I’m wrong, I’ll hand over the store and walk away. If I’m right… I’m not sure what I’ll do next.”
I asked what Matsumoto wanted to do from now on, but he wasn’t sure. “I’m just focused on what’s happening now. I’ll have to think about that later.”
As of our conversation, there had been no contact between 7-Eleven and Matsumoto, so it’s unclear what the company’s intentions are. Perhaps they will remain silent so as not to draw any more media attention and just let him sell off the rest of his goods without incident. On the other hand, they may just be slowed down by the holiday season and will swoop in to shut him down completely within the next few days.
It’s a lot of uncertainty, but he and his small crew are just conducting business as usual until they can’t any longer. Finally, I asked Matsumoto what he thought the future of convenience stores in Japan was.
“There isn’t any. The system is broken because the companies are taking too much from the people running the stores, and there isn’t enough left to run them properly. This is the way things are getting nowadays: people in the highest levels are just interested in getting as much for themselves as they can. You see it everywhere, like Donald Trump in America, these people at the top are only looking out for themselves. It’s the same in Japan and elsewhere too, but it can’t continue like this.”
For his defiance, Matsumoto has sometimes been depicted as a belligerent crank in the media, someone not willing to cooperate and just looking to cause trouble. Granted I only talked with him briefly, but I didn’t get that sense at all. He certainly seemed like a hardheaded and proud man, as you might expect someone in this situation to be, but he was hardly irrational.
And he’s certainly right that the convenience store industry is at a tipping point now. Labor shortages are being made up with an increasing number of short-term foreign workers and possibly completely automated systems in the future. So Matsumoto is absolutely right that things cannot continue the way they are, but much like the future of this canary of a 7-Eleven in the coal mine of Japan, how they will end up is very much in the air.
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