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Japanese Convenience Stores: A Love Letter

Lori Bailey / April 27th 2017

There I was, again, in a 7-11. Tuna onigiri in one hand, bottle of water in the other. Just the other night, it was a bag of clementines and a cold Sapporo. And, before that, it might have been a warm pork bun and a tiny packet of lemongrass bath salt... as one does.

Over the course of my two-week stay in Japan, I must have stopped by a convenience store (or konbini) at least once a day, driven both by necessity and a strange and growing affection for these humble little spots. Konbini can be found quite literally everywhere -- some packed into tiny corners, many open 24/7, and all well-stocked with food and essentials. But, unlike the American version, the konbini experience is, well, enjoyable. Brightly lit, cheerful, and filled with stuff you need -- nay, want.

The food game, for example. Withered hot dogs and burnt coffee? Uh, no. Try bento boxes of rice, meat, noodles, even spaghetti (a dearly loved dish in Japan), heated up for you in-store if you'd like. Rows of cute onigiri rice balls, centers filled with fish or pickled veg, wrapped in paper-thin nori . Sandwiches on crustless white bread, precisely cut into triangles, containing layers of sliced meat and cheese or egg salad (the classic, and not at all sketchy). Cans of perfectly decent coffee and tea, aisles of packaged snacks, and every other convenience store staple -- all present and accounted for.

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Beyond stocking genuinely tasty food, Japanese convenience stores offer a number of other dead-useful services. You can pay your bills, withdraw cash, buy tickets, or make use of the copier. Pick up vitamins, herbal remedies and disposable face masks to ward off illness. Peruse and purchase a magazine or manga. At some places, you can even buy clothing essentials like t-shirts, underwear and socks (consolation for forgotten laundry, perhaps). Nothing, no basic need of life, is forgotten.

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Convenient, for sure -- but does it deserve the hype? What, in fact, sets the konbini apart from the average convenience store? What led it from American import to fully-integrated Japanese staple? And what, if anything, can we in the States glean from all this?

First, a look at infrastructure. Japan being an island and a relatively small country, infrastructure is tight -- very tight.  Small street blocks, densely-packed cities, heavy foot traffic. Perfect breeding grounds for neighborhood corner stores (see also the New York bodega), where nearby residents can and will stop by the closest one-stop-shop for their daily needs. Another benefit of a small, tight infrastructure: fewer roadblocks to innovation and evolution. With stores being closer to headquarters, suppliers, and consumers, shifts in customer demands can be quickly determined, translated into product, and rolled out. Kazuki Furuya, president of Seven-Eleven Japan, put it this way: "If convenience stores continue to evolve, there will be chances (to grow)."1

Culturally, too, convenience retail finds rich soil. People work hard in Japan -- very hard. They thrive, also, on a particular blend of simplicity, efficiency, and attention to detail; values deeply woven into every aspect of Japanese life. Onigiri, the darling of konbini snack shelves, tick all the boxes: simple to make, easy to transport and eat, and pretty heckin' adorable. Some even come with the seaweed wrapper separated from the moist rice in order to preserve its freshness and crunch, a ridiculously thoughtful detail for such a cheap and simple grab-n-go item. The in-store bento box heating option, again, shows that someone understands the difference between providing a meal and providing a hot meal, heated to order, just for you. And consider the handy bill payment service. Pure genius, identifying a common denominator amongst a vast and impossibly busy clientele, then offering a simple and efficient solution that benefits both parties. The konbini retailers seem keenly attuned not only to the essentials of what their customers need, but also to the opportunities those needs present -- opportunities to make their customers feel truly taken care of, and thus more likely to stop in again and again.

Which leads us to the concept of service. By far and away, the differentiating factor of the Japanese konbini from the average American convenience store appears to be the attention to detail at every level: from consumer research to product development, store maintenance to hospitality. Clerks at your typical konbini greet customers with smiles, complete orders quickly and efficiently, and end every transaction with a polite "arigato gozaimashita" and a bow. But, before the customer even reaches the counter, they're met with layer upon layer of thoughtful service: a clean, orderly, well-lit store; cost-effective, but quality, products; services that make busy lives a little easier to tackle. Remember that this is no 5-star hotel or luxury retailer demanding next-level service. This is, after all, a convenience store, where pennies (or yennies) count. Attentive service doesn't come cheap -- but, in the konbini  model, it's obviously a price worth paying.

So -- what, then? Does the concept of the konbini translate to anything on this side of the pond? Certainly no one here could be expected to bow, and fish roe onigiri might need a little more time to catch on before they line grocery shelves. But, in America, our own convenience market is advancing steadily. In dining, formal options are giving way to fast-casual; even fast-casual is challenged by a growing interest in street food, food trucks, and delivery. Busy lives are getting busier, and customers increasingly seek flexibility and ease. Is it enough to give them simply the answers to their needs, cut losses, and make profits? If we took a leaf from the konbini's book, we would look both broader and deeper. Panning out from the needs to capture the broader culture those needs are coming from -- but also looking past the needs into the opportunities those needs present. I would argue that the success of the konbini lies in wielding that perspective to inform not just what, but how, they serve their customers. It's that subtle art of taking basic commodities -- needs -- and transforming them into wants.