The Metabolic Growth Of Convenience
From left to right: 7-Eleven, AM/PM, Family Mart, and Lawson
These abstract colour bands may look familiar to anyone who has ever visited Japan. Artist Masato Nakamura’s light box series reference colours that have leaked into all corners of the country and the lifestyles of its inhabitants: these are the modern banderoles of convenience stores. Japanese people know these stores since early age, perhaps since their first exciting errand to get some grocery and perhaps a pack of candies. Today, children, elderly, mothers and busy mid age people all seem to have ever more good reasons to visit convenient stores. But why are these stores so successful and how do they attract so many different generations?
The convenience store giant, 7-Eleven
The convenience store is like a microcosm constituted of the various needs that crop up in our daily lives. It offers 24/7 self-help service of foodstuffs and everyday items in a store area of around 30–250㎡. Its wide distribution is astounding: 53,000 convenience stores in the country as opposed to 20,200 supermarkets and 18,000 drug stores. Cross between newsagents and grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and vending machines, the products and services it offers are constantly on the increase as well as the number of stores.
Some of the things you can do or buy at a convenience store
Aside from domestic turf war and expansion into railway stations, the convenience store’s latest driver for growth focuses on how to appease the one-stop shop experience desired by senior and female consumers. Stores are aiming for cross-industrial expansion in the direction of supermarkets, cafes, and drugstores. The convenience store has long dealt with items that overlap in these shop categories, but now its metabolic growth is putting pressure on these categorical partitions. Moreover, it’s beginning to embrace contradicting attributes such as attainable and premium, fresh and ready-made, junky and healthy, just to name a few.
Convenience store or super market?
For example, convenience stores now deal in fresh produce like supermarkets and greengrocers. Lawson – a chain that prides itself as the town’s “health station” – has been providing online home-delivery service of groceries including vegetables from major organic brands. Now, these products are becoming increasingly available in-store, coinciding with Lawson’s development of its small-scaled supermarket, Lawson Mart. The new shops aren’t cheap supermarket substitutes, but offer quality and variety, giving “convenience” a fresh makeover. For the older generations in Japan in particular, whose ‘mobility circles’ are shrinking, a neighbourhood konbini that replaces the supermarket has an obvious attraction.
CircleKSankusu opens its new K’s Cafe
The same goes for coffee – the convenience store giant, 7-Eleven, currently marks the highest sale of the beverage in the country and is stealing share from the canned coffee sector and vending machines. Freshly grounded coffee is now available in major convenience stores, all eagerly developing their bread and dessert range to accompany the drink. This development is also changing the customer experience of the store-space. Eat-in spaces were Mini Stop’s specialty from the time of its establishment and were adopted by many other stores, to offer customers the choice of eating in or taking out. Now, the newly emerging spaces offer added comfort and luxury to those who choose to stay, some chains going as far as developing their own separate café space. Pricing is lower than places like Starbucks, but the overall atmosphere inclines towards providing customers with a premium experience.
Banner on top right advertises the new drugs on sale
Whereas supermarkets and cafés show little sign of countering this growth, drugstores are increasingly dealing in products similar to convenience stores, some selling wine and bread or developing their own private brand to add to the drugs, cosmetics, and daily items on offer. With the recent passing of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act widening access to self-medication drugs, convenience stores are also seeking cooperation with pharmacies and drugstores to enhance their selection of medication and provide, not just supplementary drugs, but actual cures.
In this way, the convenience store is expanding across categories developing the variety and quality of the products they sell and the spaces they provide. To add to this, a concept that is growing in predominance alongside this expansion is that of kodawari: an idea that anticipates a particular taste, carefully orchestrated and brought to customers by human hands. Major convenience stores and middle-ranking convenience stores approach kodawari in different ways, but common to both is an emphasis on giving convenience this human touch.
Private Brand: Seven&i Premium’s pasta sauce reads “Onion, tomato, carrot, garlic, parsley –we’ve brought out the flavours of these five vegetables.
National Brand: Nisshin Foods’s pasta sauce reads “Mild and creamy taste with milk added to the rich flavor of cod roe”
Major convenience stores display kodawari through private brand products, increasing in popularity since the 3.11 disaster when many people discovered that these retort foods were not just convenient but actually edible. The short description visible on the packaging graciously explains what the consumer can expect from the product, notably in full sentences with commas and full stops. Such grammatical detail gives readers the impression of a human presence behind the product, resulting in a more personal catch than that of its national brand counterpart.
Private Brand: Muji’s pasta sauce reads “This is the sauce for eating great pasta. We’ve brought out the sweetness of beef and flavor of pork, adding tomato and sautéed onion to give it a savory finish.”
This touch has long been a signature style of Muji, which was originally a private brand of the retailer Seiyu that emerged at the end of the 1980s when Japanese private brands first came to the rise. Family Mart was also a convenience store initially operating under Seiyu, and whether this directly relates or not, we see Muji’s style of writing being increasingly used (often in serif font) on packages of private brands developed by convenience stores in recent years. These complete sentences make retort food seem like products ready-madeby someone, for someone.
The bakery section of Three F’s new convenience store, Gooz
Mid-ranking convenience stores also communicate a similar message in their pursuit of kodawari. They’ve used the declining number of shops as an opportunity to boldly experiment with transparency and freshness. For example, Three F’s new store, Gooz, boasts an open kitchen and bakery that customers can peer into, and Cocostore makes packed lunches three times a day in-store to keep foods fresh. We are already familiar with the deep fried foods and oden (ingredients stewed in light, soy-flavoured seafood broth) prepared by the staff in many stores, but the new endeavor seems to take a step further from merely recooking frozen foodstuff. What used to be anonymous ready-made food is now visibly prepared in store, available in no time.
The concept of “convenience” has an omnivorous diet and a ravenous appetite – it can stomach contradictions and categorical overlaps, and it’s now adopted a human touch to give substance to its quality and value. So where does its expansion lead to next? 7-Eleven takes its plans of adopting an omnichannel strategy into a close merger of the convenience store network with the World Wide Web. Convenience stores are fast becoming the new pick-up window linking the digital to the real – and they’re probably not going to stop at that.
POST BY TIZIANA TRALDI & YURIKO YAMAGUCHI