Thursday, March 3, 2011

Convenience Stores

When I was still taking Japanese back at Colby, I was startled when I first came upon the word konbini, or convenience store. I was surprised how often it was mentioned in our textbook, and had little idea of what it entailed. Of course I had a general idea inspired by the convenience stores in the US and Canada. But when I entered Japan in September, I realized quickly that a Japanese konbini is much more than that. Last week I got the opportunity to attend a very interesting presentation about these little stores by Gavin Whitelaw, an American anthropologist who has been studying them for over a decade. Let me tell you what I learned.

A Family Mart konbini across the street from Doshisha's Imadegawa campus where I go to school.

First, what is a Japanese konbini? A konbini is a little store where you can buy anything that you really need in your life, and more: bread, sushi, pre-made meals, coffee, beer, whiskey, cigarettes, cigars, magazines, newspapers, porn manga, toothbrushes, notepads, writing utensils, battery chargers, computer games, and everything in between. In addition to that, you can also use their courrier and postal services, pay for your bills, pay for the concert or plane ticket you booked online, pay your taxes (!), photocopy or fax your documents, use an ATM 24/7 (which is otherwise impossible in Japan), ask for directions, use their clean public toilets without actually having to buy anything, read a whole magazine without paying for it, microwave your food, put hot water in your noodles, and dispose of your garbage in their garbage bin (another near impossible thing anywhere else in Japan).

A Lawson konbini in Kyoto. Just like in the picture above, notice the garbage bins.

What is even more interesting is that despite the small size of these stores, they are generally not more expensive than supermarkets or department stores, and have larger overall sales than the two combined. In fact, one of the commercials for a konbini asks nonchalantly: "where does the supermarket manager go to buy his loaf of bread?" The question is, though, how in the world is it possible that these small convenience stores actually outsell the supermarkets? In other words, why are they more popular than stores like Wal Mart?

The Tachiyomi (stand and read) corner at Lawson's: you can read anything they sell for free for ever and ever. The woman with the backpack is just about to enter the toilet (the door in the back).

The answer to the question is not simple, but can be summarized in a few words: Extremely good organization into large chains, targeted sales, convenience, cheap prices, and friendliness.

Organization: Konbini are on every corner, and despite being owned by small, individual people, almost all are members of large international chains, some of which you may have heard of or seen in your own country: 7 Eleven (Japan, Canada, Taiwan, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Mexico), Lawson (Japan and Shanghai), Family Mart (Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, China, United States, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Korea, and even North Korea!!!), and Circle K (USA, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, and others) are among the biggest. The individual owner of a cornerstore signs a contract with one of these large chains, who grant their store the name, rearrange the store, provide access to ATMs, and ensure that the shelves are always full. In addition, because each chain provides for tens of thousands of stores, the goods become significantly cheaper. In exchange for all that, the owner pays a royalty to the chain which ranges somewhere between forty and seventy (!) percent. What is even more interesting is that the chains themselves, as is usual in Japan, are owned by other large corporations. For example, 7 Eleven is owned by the Ito-Yokado corporation, Lawson is owned by Mitsubishi, Circle K by the Canadian chain Couche-Tard, etc. In fact, much of corporate Japan is divided between a few major conglomerates like this, which concentrates power in a very few select hands.

Targeted sales: Even though all konbini sell pretty much the same stuff, the customers in say Okinawa may have different needs from those in Hokkaido. Thus for example in a konbini in Hokkaido you can buy mitten gloves and hats. In addition, with every customer, the konbini clerk, before being able to open the cashier, must enter your gender and age into the computer. The cashier also records the weather, the location of the store, time of purchase, location of the shelf from which you bought your product, the clerk's name, and the register number. All this data for each and every customer is then sent to the corporation, which has access to data for years and years back in the past. They are thus able to see how your sales are changing, who comes to the store at what time and during what weather, and which clerks sell more than others. The corporation then sends the stats back in a workable form to the store owner, who immediately knows what he should be selling more or less of and when, which employees to cherish or not, etc. Ingenious, isn't it?

Convenience & Friendliness: There is a reason why these shops are called convenience stores. They can be found on any corner, are easy to navigate in as all look pretty much the same. They sell fast, and they have all you really need plus provide the amazing services I talked about above. On top of all that, most stay open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, including even the most sacred holidays. The staff is usually very friendly, and will help you with diretions etc. even if you do not buy anything. You really do not need to go anywhere else to satisfy your everyday shopping needs.

Cheap Prices: As I already said, because the Konbini are chains, the price of the products they sell drops dramatically. The other reason why they are cheap is that the typical employees are university students who receive the minimal wage, which is less than 800 Yen per hour.

Two young employees of a Lawson replacing the food in the Onigiri (rice ball) and prepared meals shelves.

Convenience stores play a large role in Japanese lives, one similar to that of Wal Mart in the USA. They serve not only as providers of services and employment, but also as social spaces in front of which people gather. The Lawson at Kamogawa Sanjo, one of Kyoto's busiest places after dark, serves as a good example. People sit at the Kamogawa river, drinking the beer and eating the snack which they bought at the Lawson's, from time to time using the free and clean toilets which the store provides. In addition, it is significantly cheaper than an Izakaya (a popular type of bar in Japan), and no one forces you to leave after two hours (which is a common practice in most Izakaya at a busy hour).

Anyway, enough talk. I need to go to the the Family Mart across the street to get my lunch and pay for my plane tickets to Okinawa next month.

The beer selection at Lawson's is not bad.

Plastic cups, toiletries, cleaning agents, batteries, notebooks, pens, erasers. Who needs a supermarket?

The snack shelves.


  1. Targeted sales: "The corporation then sends the stats back in a workable form to the store owner, who immediately knows what he should be selling more or less of and when, which employess to cherish or not, etc."
    Or how to change the weather? I wouldn't be surprised if they did try.

    Great read again, keep it up.