Nothing proliferates in Japan like convenience stores. Nothing evolves like them either, though their unvarying external appearance and internal layouts may give the superficial observer the impression that not much has changed in the 39 years since the first 7-Eleven opened in Tokyo. The evolution, explains Josei 7 (Dec 19), is in the merchandise, services and quality, the former two steadily expanding, the latter steadily rising.
Japan boasts some 49,000 “conbini.” Often there are two, sometimes three, at one intersection. Competition is fierce, hence the perpetual spawning of new temptations – fresh coffee, hot snacks, health food, packaged meals for one, packaged meals for two – the list goes on and on, and is an addition to, not a replacement of, the basics that formed the original core inventory: bread, "onigiri," cigarettes, soft drinks, magazines and so on.
The copy machine – every conbini has one, usually next to the ATM, which is also standard equipment – does more than just make copies. You can use it to print your smartphone texts and photos, or, if you’ve pre-registered, to access official documents in case of need, saving you a trip to the ward office. Chiba Prefecture conbini have pioneered the “crime prevention box,” staffed by retired police officers. Convenience thus extends to the harassed, the troubled and the threatened.
What else is new? A good deal, Josei 7 finds. Coffee is old, but quality coffee for 100 yen or thereabouts? Coffee specially for women? Espresso coffee? At convenience stores? Once unheard of, these are now commonplace.
7-Eleven offers “golden bread” flavored with honey – 20,000 loaves sold in five months. FamilyMart trumpets “premium chicken,” seasoned with 11 spices and herbs – not bad for 180 yen. Somebody tweeted something about it on Twitter, and suddenly it was a nationwide phenomenon. Lawson’s thick pancakes doused in maple syrup have earned more than 900 million yen since their first appearance in March. Mini-Stop’s “Hokkaido premium soft ice cream” (the English word “premium” occurs and recurs in conbini-land), priced at 258 yen, have sold 125% relative to original expectations.
If only the rest of Japan’s economy were sizzling as furiously. And the hits just keep on coming. Josei 7 cites a few: FamilyMart’s 280-yen “premium sandwiches,” selling since their July debut at three times the expected pace; Lawson’s eggs benedict (320 yen); Circle K’s clam chowder (270 yen).
Japan is a disaster-prone country. This seems an odd note to strike in a story about convenience stores, but their ability to keep traumatized earthquake and tsunami victims supplied with basic necessities has been proven again and again, most recently in the March 2011 Tohoku catastrophes, and makes them, Josei 7 notes, “an essential part of the infrastructure.”
And, increasingly, they deliver – to your house, that is. That too is a vital social service to a rapidly aging nation.© Japan Today