24/7/365 convenience stores in Japan
Konbini is the Japanese word, created from the English expression "convenience store," for a store open 24h/24 and 7/7. Representative of the Japanese-style service, these neighborhood shops are as convenient, selling everyday items, as numerous (more than 50,000 throughout the archipelago). The main brands are Seven Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart.
You may have heard about or seen these convenience stores (konbini) in a drama or a Japanese film, sometimes in a video game, perhaps even unwittingly. This is a concept so inseparable from Japan that we had to describe it in a dedicated post.
The term konbini (or conbini) is an apocope, one of Japanese language’s favorite figure of speech, originating from the English expression "convenience store." It is in fact a neighborhood shop offering a wide range of services. Most of them are open 24/7/365, and simply do not close a single minute in the year, even during the Golden Week.
This type of shop is said to have been imported in Japan at the end of the 1960s from the United States where it developed after WWII. Nowadays, there are about 60,000 konbinis in Japan, which is about 1 per 2,000 inhabitants!
In 2008, the total sales revenue in Japanese konbini have exceeded those of the supermarkets for the first time. Despite prices that are noticeably more expensive than in the latter.
In 2015, there were more than 55,000 konbini in Japan, a 5% increase each year.
For example, in August 2017, Family Mart owned 13,620 stores, of which 94,8% were open 24h/24.
Their gross total revenue is estimated at more than ¥10,000 billion, with 1,5 billion customers per month. More than 90% of the sales revenue is generated by the five main konbini chains (out of a total 23):
- Seven Eleven (an average of ¥664,000 / ~US$6,369 per day and per shop) welcomed in June 2015 its 23rd month of consecutive increase, with a total revenue of ¥3,780 billion for 20,000 shops (first openings in Okinawa, starting with Naha on 11 July 2019. 250 new openings are scheduled over the next five years)
- Lawson (¥542,000 / ~US$5,199) to ¥1,940 billion including 25% in tobacco
- FamilyMart (¥521,000 / ~US$4,998)
- Circle K Sunkus – Uny group (¥457,000 / ~US$4,384)
- Minimart (about ¥250,000 / ~US$2,398)
In March 2015, Family Mart and Uny have announced discussions to merge, and at the end of 2018, there were no Sunkus left in Tokyo.
A 2017 study found that about 5% of konbinis’ staff was foreigners, about ~40,000 out of ~800,000 employees.
These convenience stores are everywhere, especially in large cities, like Tokyo, where there is one at almost every street corner! Japanese people go to konbini on a daily basis. Among the largest chains are aside the previously mentioned ones: AM PM, Heart-In, or Ministop.
In July 2017, Lawson started to establish mini-konbini directly in companies' offices, on a 1m² surface. About one thousand are expected to be installed by the end of March 2018.
The same Lawson has tested in the beginning of 2018 a konbini system without staff, where customers can pay with their smartphones.
In 2018, from September 21 to 30, the famous luxury brand Cartier opened a "pop-up konbini" named Juste un Clou in Omotesando, the high-end district in Tokyo. The products sold where classic, but not their prices: ¥900 (~US$8.63 for a coffee or ¥1,080 (~US$10.36) for a donut.
On 9 October 2018, Lawson opened a self-service konbini in Tokyo (JEBL Akiba Square Building), where customers flash their products themselves and pay with the app developed by Lawson.
What are the products and services sold in konbini?
So, what can we buy, or what kind of services are provided by a konbini?
Food of course: salty, sweet, frozen, and the sales champion: bento 🍱 (a meal tray with rice, sushi 🍣 and/or meat... that Japanese people particularly enjoy at lunch). There are of course also drinks: water, milk, fruit juice, sometimes alcohol, heated cans of coffee, tea or cocoa milk – a very good idea that should be implemented more often in the West. Hot water and microwave ovens are usually placed behind the counter, respectively, to prepare cup noodles and rice...
Food products are generally slightly more expensive than in supermarkets, which makes konbini rather similar to European local food stores regarding this matter. On the other side, e-commerce and food delivery are increasingly developing. But the real scope of Japanese "convenience store" lies below.
Konbinis certainly are not limited to selling food. They offer a lot of other services, such as selling magazines, stationery, tobacco and cigarettes, hygiene products and clothes (such as neckties, socks and briefs favored by salarymen who missed the last train 🚅 home), or even the best-selling manga and video games. In addition to postal stamps, it is also possible to send letters and parcels, which is extremely convenient as Japan Post offices often close at 4 or 5 p.m. They are also part of the takuhaibin delivery network.
Konbinis also sell basic medicines such as aspirin or painkillers, band-aids, but also toiletries and cosmetics. You can make photocopies, send faxes. Some even offer a laundry service!
Recently, touch screens are available in konbini to order movie or concert tickets (or tickets for Ghibli Museum, exclusively sold at Lawson). To add to the convenience, these terminals can be used to pay bills: water, electricity, gas, Internet 📶 service provider, telephone 📱 and other administrative services. Finally, they have an 24/7 ATM 🏧 (as convenient as postage services, for the same reasons), vending machines to print digital photos or to top up a mobile phone credit.
Starting March 2018, Family Mart began to develop automatic laundries in some of their stores and they intended to extend the service to 500 shops.
As you can see the services available in konbini are only limited by the chains managers’s imagination.
On a side note, most konbini are criticized because of their habit to display erotic and porno magazines at children’s eye level. Tokyo metropolitan government decided to tackle the issue in view of 2020 Olympics 🏅. In November 2017, Ministop announced they will cease to sell adult’s magazines in their shops. 7-Eleven did the same from August 2019. This type of printed magazines is declining, and sales dropped down from 175 to 77 million copies between 1997 and 2018. 70% of the total being sold in konbini, they are likely to disappear from most mainstream shops.
The reduction of plastic waste
Since 2020, July 1, most of konbini chains sell their plastic bags between ¥2 (~US$0.02) and ¥5 (~US$0.05) to help encourage the reduction of waste.
The introduction of the paying bags systems helped increasing the refusal of bags from 25 to 75%.
At the beginning of August, consequently, bags distribution dropped by 70%, about 9,000 tons less of plastic waste yearly.
However, it seems it sparked a new habit for Japanese people to buy their plastic bags in batches at 100¥ Shops.
Why konbini are essential in Japan
One of the key points of konbinis' success: the sale implantation system. Generally, premises are 100 to 200 square meters at most, and the storage room is not huge. Managers must therefore work with very specific and precise stocks.
To manage this difficulty, the system is set up to retrieve information about consumers at the checkout: a part is automatic (time of purchase, barcode of the product and its price) and the other filled by the cashier (age of the consumer, sex). This information is transmitted directly to the headquarters of the franchise, which define precise statistics on consumption patterns according to the outlets, and can efficiently dispatch necessary products, at the exact moment they are needed. Deliveries are nearly automated and stocking shelves filled with products highly relevant to the data collected.
The staff is either young (students working to finance college, or their leisure activities) or elderly (retirees looking for an activity and / or a financial supplement to their pension). They usually work on 8-hours shifts or on a similar organization: a night team, several day teams, etc. The turn-over is high and they are always recruiting.
That’s all for our description of konbini. If you travel in Japan, as an expatriate or a tourist, you will probably love the concept and like everybody, become addicted to it!