Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

The original Lawson store chain has spawned “Happy Lawson” and “Natural Lawson”

Sony sinks, Toyota tumbles, and the Nikkei stock index plunges to lows not seen for more than a quarter of a century. But the global financial storm can’t rattle Japan’s convenience stores, where sales are up smartly. These hardy and still-multiplying spawn of 7-Eleven now number about 41,700, and they are arguably the most convenient convenience stores on Earth.

Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

Beyond the typical store layout are many new consumer experiments in Japan

At Happy Lawson, a kid-friendly store that overlooks Yokohama Harbor, you can buy fresh sushi and carbon offsets, pay income tax and change diapers, book airplane tickets and sip vodka coolers. There’s hot soup, cold beer, fresh bread, clean toilets, french fries, earwax remover, spotless floors, and a broadband-empowered machine that will order home appliances, book concert tickets and sign you up for driver’s ed.

No Big Gulp, no Slurpee, no mini-pizzas sweating grease under a hot light, but you can drop off luggage for the bullet train and park a stroller beside the bar that abuts the toddler play area. “For mothers to maybe have a sip of alcohol while children play is, I think, welcome,” said Kazuo Kimera, a spokesman for Lawson Inc., which has about 8,600 convenience stores across Japan.

Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

 With 8,600 convenience stores across Japan, Lawsons is one of the largest

Americans invented the chain convenience store in Dallas in 1927, and it is still going strong. There are 146,294 of them in 50 states with annual sales of $577 billion, or about 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, according to the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing.

Japan got into the game in 1974, when the first 7-Eleven opened. Since then, though, Japan has tirelessly improved on the original, doing to convenience stores what it has done to automobiles. Luckily for the American competition, Japanese convenience stores are not an export item.

Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

 Customer lines grow during a bad economy

“We have standardized the size of the store to 100 square meters and 2,500 products,” said Tetsu Kaieda, managing director of the Japan Franchise Association. “We don’t need anything more or anything less to sell convenience.”

Inside these tight quarters, stores pack a galaxy of carefully calibrated services.

At FamilyMart, customers can make appointments for someone to vacuum their home. At 7-Eleven (now run by a Japanese-owned company), there’s a drop-off laundry service. To cater to Japan’s oldest-in-the-world population, the Lawson chain has invented “Lawson Plus” stores, which carry false-teeth cleanser, hair dye and bouquets suitable for graves. Aisles are wider, signs have larger print, and there are massage chairs with blood-pressure machines nearby.

Nearly any bill in Japan — utility, phone, cable or tax — can be paid at a convenience store. About $80 billion worth were paid that way last year.

Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

Play area at Happy Lawson

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, and convenience stores here are trying to corner the market on worst-case scenarios. When Big Ones hit, they let government agencies take advantage of their ubiquity for the delivery of emergency water and other supplies.

 Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

Toys in the kid-friendly Happy Lawson store

In cases of spouse abuse or any kind of crime, victims are welcomed at convenience stores, where a clerk will look after them under scalding fluorescent light until police arrive. Last year, 39,000 people fled to convenience stores for personal safety.
Food, too, is intensively managed and several cuts above the quality generally found in U.S. convenience stores. The typical Japanese store is visited 10 times a day by delivery trucks, most of them bringing in fresh lunchboxes, pastries, desserts and vegetables — and hauling away perishable food that has failed to sell in the past few hours.

Then there are cigarettes. They have been very, very good for convenience stores, especially this year.

About 40 percent of Japanese men smoke, one of the highest rates in the developed world and nearly double the rate for men in the United States. Struggling to bring the smoking rate down, Japan this summer introduced “smart cards,” which can be obtained only by adults and which are necessary to buy cigarettes at vending machines. The cards, though, have proved unpopular with smokers, who come instead to convenience stores to buy cigarettes from a human being.

Japan Re-Invents the Convenience Store

Yushkin, the earth rabbit is popular in Japan

Since the law went into effect in July, convenience stores’ sales have increased sharply. But sales were growing this spring anyway, before the new law, as the Japanese economy began to slide into recession and sales at supermarkets and department stores floundered.

“We are always very strong during bad times,” said Kaieda, from the convenience store association, noting that convenience stores grew vigorously during Japan’s “lost decade” of recession in the 1990s. “Our share of the markets goes up because other sales go down. We are not doing bad at all.”

Here in Yokohama, Happy Lawson seems to have figured out the needs of a broad spectrum of customers. The place is packed at midday with moms, children, businessmen, students and retirees.

“It is handy to come here to buy diapers, pay bills and make bookings for trips,” said Mazuna Okata, 35, who sat with her daughter Ayuma, 2, at a table in Happy Lawson’s play area. “Here it is welcome to have kids screaming.”


Via Washington Post