Combini: Japanese Convenience Stores and Life in Modern Japan

Combini: Japanese Convenience Stores and Life in Modern Japan

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Lawson - combini in Japan
Picture: Karolis Kavolelis / Shutterstock
Convenience stores ("conbini") in Japan are everywhere. But what do people use them for? A look at combini and everyday life in Japan.

Anthony Bourdain famously said that the first thing he ever did when landing in Japan was head to a Lawson for their egg salad sandwich[1]. That’s not surprising. Talk to anyone who lives in or has spent time in Japan and they’re also likely to wax poetic about combini (a shortening of コンビニエンスストア, convenience store). Combini are as ubiquitous throughout Japan as Starbucks are in Seattle.

How did it get that way? And what do people use them for? Let’s take a look at the scale of Japanese convenience stores and how, exactly, they fit into modern life in Japan.

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The scope and scale of combini

A Japanese convenience store is any self-service retail outlet selling primarily food and drink that occupies a space of at least 30 square meters and no more than 250 square meters, and operates 14 hours or more a day[4].

There are some 56,000 to 59,00 combini in Japan. (By contrast, Japan has around 23,000 supermarkets[9].) Of those, the big three are 7-11 (21,000+), Family Mart (16,000+), and Lawson (13,000+). These three comprise almost 89% of all combini in Japan[2]. The vast majority of these stores are run on a franchise model.

The convenience store concept was originally an import from the United States. It’s hard to pin down exactly when the first store opened, as that depends on how you define “combini”. A good case can be made that the honor goes to the now-closed TAC-MATE store (formerly Coco Store) in Kasugai, Aichiu Prefecture, which opened on July 11th, 1971. The first Seico Mart opened shortly after that[7]. America’s 7-11 joined the party a few years later in 1974.

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According to 2021 statistics, combini in Japan collectively have revenues of close to 11 trillion yen (USD $70 billion)[5]. Like most businesses that relied on in-person transactions, the pandemic took a stick to earnings. As of this writing, profits are on the rebound but have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels[6].

There are a few reasons for the massive scale of Japanese convenience stores. Many homes are small and don’t have a ton of space to store extras of household necessities. That means frequent trips to re-supply. In addition, more and more households in Japan see both spouses working to support the family. Japanese convenience stores provide an easy way to buy things like bread and dinner side dishes for couples who are pressed for time[5].

Combini rockin’ all day and night

7-11
Picture: Shutterstock

Of the 50-thousand-some convenience stores in Japan, 30,000 or so operate 24 hours a day[3]. The first 24-hour store in Japan was a 7-11 in Fukushima Prefecture in 1975.

Originally, 24-hour operation was a business move. 7-11’s data from its US operations showed that the company could pad profits if it kept the stores running all night.

Over time, however, 24-7 combini have become a part of public safety as well. The presence of a well-lit store and people, even late at night, help inculcate a sense of security in the surrounding neighborhood. Indeed, it isn’t rare for someone to rush into a convenience store to seek safety and shelter. In 2005, over 5,000 such incidents occurred within just half a year[4]. In 2005, the Japan Franchise Chain Association launched the Safety Station Action System to formalize the use of convenience stores as an emergency safe space.

Who uses combini in Japan?

So who uses Japanese convenience stores? And why?

One of the more detailed reports I’ve seen comes from Asahi Group. (As the manufacturers of Asahi Beer and a bevvy of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, they have a vested interest in such data.) According to their results, close to 70% of respondents visit a convenience store at least once a week. 21.9% go at least once a week, 27.2% two to three times, and 11.8% four to five times weekly. Only about 8.3% say they go every day.

Those who go once or more a week are almost evenly split between men and women. However, men are more likely to use a combini four or more times in a week.

By far, the vast majority of those using convenience stores once or more per week are young. Some 84.5% of respondents to Asahi Group’s survey who said they used combini frequently were in their 20s. Usage drops steadily for all subsequent ages brackets. Only 56.2% of respondents who said they visited convenience stores once or more per week were in their 60s.

In terms of time of day, the use of convenience stores closely mirrors the workday cycle. The peak usage time is noon, when most workers are likely to visit one to grab lunch, a drink, or a treat. Combini also see usage spikes in the am and around dinnertime between 6pm to 8pm. Many use convenience stores to get their entire lunches. For dinnertime, a combini stop is more about grabbing some sides and other dinner supplements.

What do people buy at combini?

But what exactly are people buying at combini? (Besides the egg salad sandwich, of course.)

According to Asahi Group, by far the most in-demand item is bottled drinks – mineral water, soda, milk, etc. – at 63.7%. Next up is bread (white bread, sweet breads, and sandwiches). Third on the list are the foods you’d expect to see people buy for lunchtime or as a dinner supplement: side dishes, bento lunch boxes, and onigiri.

What people buy at combini
(Picture: Asahi Group)

Rounding out the list, in order, are:

Desserts: 45.1%

Snacks: 34.7%

Alcoholic drinks: 30.4%

Convienence store side dishes like karaage, oden, fried potatoes, etc.: 27.2%

Coffee: 22.9%

Gum and hard candies: 20.7%

Newspapers, magazines, and books: 16.4%

Of these, perhaps the most important on the list in terms of daily lifestyle is bread, bento, and side dishes. In comments to Asahi Group, many reported these items as core to their use of convenience stores. Respondents say they appreciated the convenience of being able to get something simple to eat along with a quick drink.

Other services offered

Selling food isn’t the only thing that Japanese convenience stores do. Many offer a wide variety of services that are pivotal in supporting people’s lives. The ubiquity of convenience stores makes it easy to pop in and take care of critical life activities.

The leading non-food reason people use convenience stores is to get cash. 39.3% of respondents say they use combini to get money, make a deposit, or check their balances.

The next most-used service? Bill payment. 38.4% of those polled say they use convenience stores to pay their water, gas, electric, and telephone bills.

Other frequently used convenience store services with 20% or more utilization include sending packages, copying, buying concert tickets, and paying for online purchases. A much smaller percentage (under 10%) use combini to purchase domestic and itnernational travel tickets (plane, bus, etc.), make prints of digital photos, and buy lottery tickets.

Japanese convenience stores vs supermarkets

One interesting facet of the use of convenience stores is the price differential with supermarkets. Many people in Japan are price-conscious. (The collapse of the bubble and the yen’s weakness in the early 2020s make it almost impossible not to be.) But convenience stores charge a premium for being so convenient.

Many respondents to the Asahi Group poll said that they’re willing to pay for the convenience. Some even said they make calculated decisions based on how much they need. One respondent, for example, said he’ll buy bottled tea at the supermarket if he needs a liter or more. For a personal-sized serving, however, he’ll go to a convenience store.

Others said they appreciate that convenience stores offer more new and “popular” items you might not find in the supermarket. (The Yakult 1000 craze is a good recent example.) And people who live by themselves – either because they’re one of Japan’s increasing number of singles or because they’ve been transferred and work away from their families – appreciate they can buy single servings of goods.

The future of combini and the 24/7 model

One of the largest issues facing convenience stores in modern Japan surrounds the 24/7 operating model. While many people in Japan still appreciate the 24/7 model, it’s becoming harder and harder for franchise owners to maintain.

There are a few factors that make 24/7 operations challenging. One is Japan’s population decline and aging population. Even before the pandemic, some franchise owners were struggling to keep their stores staffed. In 2019, a 7-11 franchise owner in Osaka made national headlines when he said his store would cease 24/7 operations.

The owner, Matsumoto Sunetoshi, said he was struggling to keep the store open 24/7 after the death of his wife, who helped him run it. This sparked a very public spat with 7-11’s parent company in Japan, 7 & i Holdings, which insisted that he was contracted to keep it open nonstop.

Stagnant raises and self-checkout

conbini (convenience store) self checkout register
Picture: sasaki106 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Another factor is Japan’s stagnant wages.

Before the pandemic, many staff working at Japanese convenience stores or restaurants were foreigners. However, many of them returned home when Japan entered its first lockdown. While other businesses have been able to recover, convenience stores are still struggling, especially with night shifts. Given that almost all convenience stores top their wage out at 1000 yen (USD $6.92) an hour, it’s little wonder they can’t keep stores running[11].

Sadly, there’s no easy solution to this problem. Contractually, wages come out of franchise owner’s profits. (Parent companies also pay a little to owners in support money to help keep stores running.) Franchise owners are typically only earning around 500,000 yen monthly in profits after expenses. Paying more would result in the owners putting in longer hours to cover missing shifts.

One possible remedy to the 24/7 operation issue is self-checkout. In 2019, Lawson introduced a “fully automated nightstand” in Yokohama, where customers could buy anything excluding alcohol and tobacco via QR code scan checkout.

The concept is proving popular in Japan. A recent poll shows that 99% of consumers know about self-checkout and another 78% have used them. The concept is especially popular among young women: 85% of women in their teens and 20s say they’ve used a self checkout process.

It’s safe to say that combini are an indispensable part of Japan’s daily life – and, in form or another, there’s here to stay.

Sources

[1] Lawson Station Egg Sandwich. Chris Stenberg

[2] 【2022年版】コンビニエンスストアの店舗数ランキング. Nippon Software Service

[3] レファレンス事例詳細. Collaborative Reference Database

[4] コンビニエンスストア. Wikipedia JP

[5] コンビニエンスストア統計データ. Japan Franchise Association

[6] コンビニ売上ランキング2022 大手がコロナ前の業績に戻らない一方で、好調なのは?Diamond Chain Store Online

[7] 「日本のコンビニ1号店」が閉店 45年の歴史に幕. Excite

[8] なぜ人手不足なのに24時間営業? コンビニが“絶対に休んではいけない”ことになった理由. ITMedia Netlab

[9] スーパーマーケット店舗数. J-SOSM

[10] コンビニで何を買う?Asahi Group Holdings

[11] オーナーにのしかかる人件費の重み セルフレジや深夜無人化にかかる期待. Asahi SMBiz

[12] コンビニなどの「セルフレジ」の現在利用率は約8割…特に10~20代男性で高い結果に. Otona Life

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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