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Japanese Convenience Stores (Konbini)

By Umami Recipe
Japanese Convenience Stores (Konbini)

Convenience stores in Japan are small spaces packed with thoughtful innovation, selling everything from food to daily necessities on a 24 hours, 7 days a week basis. They have become an indispensable part of Japanese life and have attracted attention for their engenuity and high levels of customer satisfaction. In this article, we look at a few of the features that make the Japanese Kobini such a success.

Compact Shops that Have it All

There are a few established features of convenience stores in Japan that set them apart; cleanliness, safety, quality of service and quality of products. Store staff keep the shop impeccably clean, and this extends to the outside of the store as well, where the parameters are thoroughly swept throughout the 24 hour opening hours. Safety of convenience stores comes largely from the condition of Japan as a country, a place known for its safety. As a consequence, there is little worry about robberies or theft. You won't find stores shuttered or barricaded at midnight like in some other countries.

In terms of products, the range is extensive, from daily necessities, books, magazines, sweets and all types of foods. In particular, the variety of lunch meal options, desserts, and prepared foods are second to none, even when compared to larger supermarkets. Other services are also available and heavily relied on, like tax payment, courier services, and ticketing portals for events and attractions. There are also ATMs and photocopiers, which are used for money withdrawals and printing. 

Convenience stores exist all over Japan and provide all of these services 24 hours/7 days a week. Some people in rural areas prefer to go to convenience stores over traditional supermarkets. A picture of the many benefits and advantages of Japanese convenience stores comes to focus.

History of Convenience Stores in Japan

Convenience stores first came about in the 1920s in the United States. In Japan, the concept was introduced in the late 1960s at the same period when large supermarkets were also rapidly expanding. Supermarket powerhouses like Daiei and Seiyu spearheaded the expansion in Japan. Yet, for all of the benefits that large chains brought, the expansion created conflicts with local shops and businesses. Faced with this dilemma, managers of large supermarkets developed a new type of business. In the 1970s, convenience stores began to expand in earnest and gradually gained popularity, with 24-hour opening hours, ATMs, and other features that were the result of the hard work of convenience store owners. The concept of 24 hour, one-stop amenities continued to spread throughout Japan while services grew in number and convenience. According to data from the Japan Franchise Association, the number of convenience stores increased from 40,000 to 55,000 between 2008 and 2018. In urban areas, there are convenience stores built every few hundred meters, and the competition is intense. Conversely, there are still rural areas where convenience stores have not been opened yet. With potential locations yet to be developed, it is predicted that the number of convenience stores will increase further.

Three Major Players: Lowson, FamilyMart, 7-Eleven

Convenience stores in Japan are made up of an oligopoly of three companies: Lawson, FamilyMart, and Seven-Eleven. These three players alone hold 90% of the market share.

Lawson is a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate. It boasts the third largest share of the domestic store market. LAWSON has various types of stores, including Natural LAWSON stores that cater to health-conscious homemakers and office workers, and 100 yen LAWSON stores that sell low-priced products. LAWSON, which has its roots in dairy products, is popular for its fresh cream rolls and cheesecakes.

FamilyMart is a convenience store that originated in Japan when a joint venture company, Seiyu, opened an experimental FamilyMart store in Saitama Prefecture in 1973. Unlike other convenience store chains, FamilyMart developed a unique Japanese convenience store chain system. As a result, there are no restrictions to the regions where stores can be opened or the types of stores that can be operated. Further, FamilyMart is the only of the three brands that has been actively involved in overseas expansion from an early stage.

7-Eleven has the largest number of stores in Japan, and subsequently, is the largest chain store operator in the world in terms of number of stores. It also has the highest sales per store compared to other convenience store chains. 7-Eleven's sales strategy is dubbed the "dominant strategy". This strategy entails increasing the efficiency of logistics, sales guidance, and advertising by concentrating store openings in certain areas. In the 2000s, 7-Eleven finally began to open stores in regional cities, and now 7-Eleven stores can be found all over Japan.

Recommended Products: Sweets

Each of the big three convenience store players in Japan differentiate their product line-up to stay competitive. Indicative of this is the private brand that each has created to provide cheaper products without sacrificing quality. Convenience store sweets fall into this category for all three companies, and are a source of delight and comfort for working men and women.

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake features so much fresh cream that you can hardly fit it inside the roll cake. For a while, it became popular as "a roll cake that can be eaten just like a cake". Circle K Sunkusu, a minor konbini brand, also made a splash when it released a cake on a stick. It became popular because it was an easy way to eat a real cake at a reasonable price without using a spoon or fork. Other popular items include nama-dorayaki filled with fresh cream and parfaits filled with red bean paste and fresh cream. This collaboration of Japanese and Western sweets has gained a following from men and women of all ages.

Recommended Products: Boil-in-bags and Frozen Food

It is not only sweets that draw customers into the shop. Almost all food products, like juices, breads, frozen foods and retort foods are sold as private brands and are gaining popularity. Seven-Eleven sells retort curry and hamburgers, which are popular among homemakers for their authentic taste. Seven-Eleven also sells a wide variety of frozen foods at low prices and high quality, which can only be achieved by using private brands.

Recommended Products: Hot Snacks and Ice Cream

Besides the private brand desserts category, many other non-kobini brand foods and desserts line the shelves, starting with snacks and ice creams that appear in front of the cash register. As for snack foods, you will find fried chicken, french fries, and in some convenience stores, even wild sando-yaki. In the winter, oden is sold--the flavorful daikon and hanpen are irresistible in the cold season. Meat buns, bean-jam buns and pizza buns are standard convenience store items. The hot and sticky dough can only be found at convenience stores and customers go to shops just for this. In the summer, frozen and shaved ice desserts are sold. If you stop by the convenience store during the hot summer season, these cold treats will help temper the formidable Japanese summer heat. In addition, coffee and frappes are offered on a self-service basis, allowing customers to enjoy freshly prepared products.

The Future of Convenience Stores

What is the outlook of Japanese convenience stores? Japan is an aging society with a low birthrate. Also, market data shows that many Japanese value private space and time. Recently, we have seen the emergence of ramen shops that do not require face-to-face contact with the staff, and gyoza shops that sell dumplings completely unattended. Also, manga cafes, a type of café with computers, manga, and TVs in a private space, are becoming popular.

Based on these trends, Japanese convenience stores will probably become completely unmanned in the future, while ensuring privacy. In recent years, many convenience stores have added eat-in spaces inside their stores. This is an ingenious way to encourage convenience store users to relax and buy more products. As convenience stores become unmanned, the amount of space available in the store will increase. By using this available space as an eat-in space, convenience store users will spend more time in the store. Private space will be secured by separating the space with partitions. As a result, the convenience store will be transformed from a small supermarket into a simple self-serve restaurant.

These changes in convenience stores will play a major role in regional cities where people depend on them. The air-conditioned, clean convenience stores will become a place of relaxation for local residents.

Find Everything You Need

It is no exaggeration that convenience stores in Japan are arguably the most convenient and all-inclusive supermarkets for a Japanese way of life. A true one-stop solution for everyday necessities, customers can withdraw money from ATMs and find their favorite desserts. The convenience store concept, imported into Japan from abroad, is now being exported back to the rest of the world after the various innovations introduced in this article. This is true especially in Southeast Asian countries, where the appetite for this type of shop has strong demand and momentum. 

Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.

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