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TECH & CULTURE

Innovation and reform in Japan’s Ubiquitous Convenience Stores

By Staff Writer
January 05, 2022
Outdoor shot of convenience store with large gorilla statue on roof

Convenience stores can be found on nearly every corner of Japan

Many travelers here are surprised that convenience stores or konbini, which can be found all over the world, have a particular place of importance in Japanese culture. Japan's first 7-Eleven opened in 1974, and now nearly 50 years later more than 50,000 convenience stores of various brands can be found across the country. Many argue that Japan has perfected the very idea of the convenience store and made it into a cultural mainstay. On top of the various seasonal food products and daily necessities, these stores offer essential services including washrooms, ATMs, print and photocopy machines, utility and tax payments, event tickets, payments for e-commerce and even postal and delivery services. This wide range of services provided 24 / 7 by convenience stores make them irreplaceable in the daily lives of both the locals and visitors alike.

close-up of person using an automatic kiosk to make a transaction

Bill payments, banking, ticket reservations and more are possible at convenience stores

In the opening pages of the popular novel “Convenience Store Woman”, author Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a worker at an unnamed convenience store who is struggling to find a place in a traditional society. In the words of protagonist Furukawa, “A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.” To help loyal customer’s daily lives and discover small joys anew, the leading Japanese convenience chain stores are continuously under reform. This has only accelerated since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the growing trend of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives. As a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture, konbini serve as a reliable cornerstone of community infrastructure in emergencies and times of disaster. More recently, the convenience store has also emerged as an essential part of the country’s digital transformation journey.

Introducing Cashless and Unmanned Solutions

In response to the growing concerns over labor shortages and worries about transmissible viruses, convenience store chains have been teaming up with a number of Japanese electronics companies to implement technological solutions that can improve the overall efficiency and speed of the shopping experience, by removing friction in payments and the need for in-person assistance.

Person using smartphone to make a purchase

Convenience stores in Japan have been quick to adopt cashless and smartphone-based payment systems

In terms of payment methods, alongside traditional credit cards, innovative options such as QR code payments and other smartphone wallets have become highly popular. According to Statista, in March 2021, electronic money was the leading cashless payment method at convenience stores in Japan, with payments amounting to around 158.7 billion yen. Other initiatives have looked at introducing robots to restock the shelves. In one experimental store, not only are there no staff manning the tills, there are no tills! Instead, a network of sensors and cameras detect which items the customer has selected, and their registered debit account is automatically billed once they go through the exit.

Unconventional flavors and leading social change

For many foreigners who visit or move to the country, 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson (three companies that dominate the Japanese convenience store market), serve as an introduction to local tastes. Namely, the konbini onigiri; rice balls with various fillings present an approachable way to eat classic Japanese flavours like ume or natto, pickled plum and fermented soybeans.

Close up of sushi rolls filled with natto

Natto sushi is just one of the traditional Japanese dishes that can be found at your local convenience store

As ESG trends become more popular in corporate Japan, key players in the convenience store market are introducing initiatives to meet the needs of their communities. Examples include 7-Elevens’s commitment to promote nutritious products. For many of the chain’s products, a traffic light system has been introduced, which clearly shows the levels of nutrition in specific foods and drinks. Also, since 2019 Lawson has been actively fighting food waste through several commercials educating customers on how they could help to reduce food waste.

A set of prepared foods in convenience store containers

Convenience store box meals come in a wide variety, made from fresh, nutritious, and flavorful ingredients

Despite the progress that has been made, convenience stores still have some way to go in order to meet their business and corporate social responsibility targets, especially when it comes to healthiness, food waste and plastic use. However, Japanese konbini are truly iconic and represent the country's values and total commitment to quality, innovation, systems, processes and, importantly, to people.

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