Konbini - Japan's Convenience Stores
Convenience stores konbini (ｺﾝﾋﾞﾆ) are everywhere in Japan. There are estimated to be around 45,769 convenience stores (March 2011 figures) nationwide selling everything from rice balls, to magazines, to lunch boxes, to contraceptives to underwear.
Convenience stores first appeared in Japan in the late 60s and 70s, as the idea caught on from the USA. Convenience stores flourished in Japan. In 2008, convenience store sales overtook department store sales, and in 2010 accounted for 6.1% of Japan's retail sales. (By comparison, supermarket sales accounted for just under 14%.)
Fluorescent lit and garishly colored, city center konbini are staffed by an army of student part-timers (ｱﾙﾊﾞｲﾄ) and an increasing number of retired workers supplementing their pensions.
In the countryside, many of the franchises are taken up as 'mom and pop' operations, often with the whole family pitching in.
Seven Eleven is Japan's top chain with presently over 10,000 stores, closely followed by Lawson, Family Mart (5,900), and the now merged Sunkus and Circle K (over 6,000 stores). Other Japanese convenience stores include Coco Store, Ministop, Daily Yamazaki (owned by the large bakery of the same name), Am/Pm Japan (part of Family Mart since 2009), and Seico Mart.
Lawson has opened a chain of "Natural Lawson" stores selling organic and more health-orientated products.
Japanese convenience stores (CS) had strong sales following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami as people did not want to venture too far from their homes in a period of uncertainty. In terms of sales, Seven Eleven is top followed by Family Mart and Lawson.
Most convenience stores are open 24/7, may sell alcohol (beer, sake, wine, spirits, happoshu), cigarettes and stamps as well as providing ATM, fax, photocopying and utility bill paying services.
Tickets for sporting events including Japanese baseball and J-League soccer matches, music concerts, airline flights and highway buses can also be purchased from machines at convenience stores. Many, though not all, Japanese convenience stores, will have a toilet on the premises and a car park, a public telephone, as well as recycling bins for PET bottles, glass bottles, cans and burnable rubbish.
Customers can also add more credit to international prepaid phone cards at convenience stores and is some cases pay for their purchases with travel IC smart cards such as SUICA and Manaca.
Daily Yamazaki is owned by the Yamazaki bakery company (the largest bakery in Japan) and stocks many of its products.
It is even possible to pick up goods at convenience stores ordered over the Internet, buy tickets for concerts, sporting events and movies, photocopy documents, send faxes as well as stock up on bottled water, ice-cream, imported wines and pornography.
Convenience stores also waste 1000s of tons of perishable food each year as products are pulled from shelves well before their sell-by dates. Convenience stores are also a major source of waribashi disposable chopsticks and plastic bags.
The main reason people give for visiting a particular convenience store is proximity to their work and home, so "convenience" is still king. On average the majority of Japanese people visit a convenience store 2 or 3 times a week with around 7% visiting every day.
According to the Mainichi Daily News figures released by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show that about 600,000 tons of unsold food was discarded from the nation's convenience stores and supermarkets in fiscal 2003 - enough to feed about 3 million people each day.
'Konbini culture' has grown throughout Asia with Japanese convenience store franchises in Thailand, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, and Family Mart has even re-exported Japanese-style convenience stores back to their land of origin - the USA.
The big convenience store chains in Japan such as Seven Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart are truly nationwide with stores from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Other convenience store chains are more regional such as Seicomart which has most of its stores in Hokkaido with others in Ibaraki and Saitama.
In a highly competitive business some chains try to differentiate themselves from the competition, for example, Ministop stores have an area of seating where customers can eat foods prepared on the premises.
7-Eleven is the largest of Japan's convenience store chains.