Japanese realities: konbini

Konbini, or Japanese convenience stores, are a wonderful invention. Open 24/7, 365 days a year, konbini offer a myriad of products and services, with the convenience of having at least one close to home.

There are more than 50000 konbini in Japan, mostly owned by big chains (7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart, just to name the most popular ones) and it is true that they spring up overnight. They are not a prerogative of the cities, but you will easily find at least one konbini even in smaller towns. Of course, for everyday shopping the main choice is a supermarket, but if you forgot something or you just know you’ll find some tasty product, then you’ll go a konbin. Practical and fast. Again, konbini are a wonderful invention.

photo credit: Yuya Tamai 2014-03-20 23.09.41 via photopin (license)

But when and how were konbini born?
In the ’70s, during the economic boom. In 1971, a group of employees from a Japanese supermarket chain went to the United States to study new sales strategies. They soon discovered convenience stores and their sales methods and tried to seize the secrets of that success. The next step was to propose contracts, which were successful, although the conditions posed by the American colleagues were rather rigid: the opening of a certain number of konbini within a certain period and a large portion of profit.
As soon as they returned to Japan, they began to form work teams. The American indications, however, were vague and very basic, so the Japanese had to sort out something, especially in regards of marketing techniques, positioning and sales.
One of the biggest problems was to find an existing shop or a land where to build a new one: as luck would have it, the master of a liquor store in Toyosu, Koto Ward, was interested in the project of the konbini, and he was willing to convert his business. The shop was small and there was not much around, but the bet was made and, soon, the first konbini, with a choice of about 300 products, was born.
Evidently, curiosity is human and, already shortly after opening, customers began to arrive, many more than those who frequented the liquor store. It wasn’t enough. There were too many expenses, electricity, wages, earnings for the American society, costs to replenish and losses due to unsold products. The latter added another problem, as they filled the warehouse, resulting in the inability to order the most popular products. If space is missing, create it: the idea was to open other shops nearby, trying to variegate the products, keeping the warehouses in order. The habits of customers also began to be studied, who preferred certain products or certain quantities: soon the American indications were replaced by new, more specific ones created by the experience.

At the beginning of the ’90s, the American society suffered a financial collapse: the situation was solved by adopting the Japanese methodologies and system, which was then exported to other parts of the world.

Why so many konbini of different chains so close to each other?
Each konbini has its own strengths and a certain type of clientele. For example, some konbini are focused on personal care, well-being, diet, others offer products for mothers and children, as well as game, relaxation and socializing spaces. Some konbini sell products unique of the chain to which they belong, different types of bentō or beverages and snacks. The advantage of having them all close is that you can buy various things in each one without moving much. Some konbini have dining areas (or at least a bench outside), where you can stop to eat, because remember that in Japan you don’t eat on the street!

photo credit: MackaColorinche Konbini life via photopin (license)

What services do the konbini offer?
Although the higher percentage comes from various foods, fresh, ready to eat or frozen, and various products mentioned above and others, you can do many things in a konbini. Pay your bills, buy appliances, buy tickets for events and concerts, make photocopies, send faxes, print photos and documents, receive parcels, go to the laundry, make them deliver your shopping at home if you have problems moving or carrying weights, use ATMs.
For all these reasons, konbini have become reference points in Japanese society.

What are the issues of konbini?
Because they remain open all day, electricity consumption is considerable.
Despite the coming and going of customers, it often happens that there is waste of food, especially among prepared meals products, such as the bentō, whose price is lowered if they are not sold within a certain hour. This is because the food is prepared fresh every day, to be sure to offer less expensive products, but still of quality.

For the third and last time, konbini are a wonderful invention!

From the same series:
Japanese realities: bento

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