Imagine Japan without combini (convenience stores). It would hardly be the same country, so ubiquitous are these garishly lit emporia – to the point where seeing two or three convenience stores on a single street corner hardly even seems strange anymore.
What do you need? A meal? A snack? Smokes? Something to read? Something to write with? Socks? Candles? A stapler? You know where to go. You’re in a strange neighborhood? Never mind, just start walking in any direction; if no combini blares its lights at you within three minutes, you’re having a singularly unlucky day.
Shukan Josei (July 31) does some research and treats us to 10 pages packed with combini trivia. Japan’s first combini, a 7-Eleven, opened in 1974 in Toyosu, Tokyo. Its first sale was a pair of sunglasses.
How many combini are there now? 45,307, as of late June. Nearly a third of them – 14,231 – are 7-Elevens. Lawson, with 10,457, is number two, followed by Family Mart (8,858) and Sunkus (6,208). What, by the way, is a combini, technically speaking? To qualify as one, a store must be between 50 and 250 square meters in area and be open at least 14 hours a day.
Combini nationwide receive 40.75 million visits a day, on average. Assuming each visit represents a different person, that’s one-third of the nation’s population. An average store receives 900 visits a day. Not all come to buy – some come merely to browse the magazines; still, daily sales at an average outlet are 530,000 yen.
Speaking of magazines, why do combini staff allow you to just stand there reading? A more upscale store would insist you buy. But combini know what they’re doing. “No problem! Manga weeklies, photo weeklies, they’re tools to bring people into the store,” explains one manager. “If they don’t buy a magazine, they’re likely to buy something else. Sometimes people who’ve been reading a long time feel self-conscious and make a point of buying something before they leave.”
Seen one combini, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? Wrong. They differ from region to region and from company to company. No one claims combini fare is gourmet dining, but regional flavors are important in Japan, and are reflected in bentos and food cooked on the premises. And each company has its different emphasis. 7-Eleven pioneered with services such as copying and banking, Lawson with separate appeals to separate demographics. “Natural Lawson,” for instance, is aimed primarily at women. A store near a school will stock up on stationery; one in a neighborhood with lots of foreigners, on sandwiches.
How to tell a well-managed store from one unworthy of your patronage? Check the fast food counter where the “nikuman” meat buns, the fried chicken and oden stew simmer. If that looks appetizing, management knows what it’s doing. If not, you probably won’t have to walk far in search of an alternative.
Convenience stores light up the night; they seem to be making war on night. Is all that brightness a good thing? Yes, if you’re fleeing crime or some other trouble and need an instant shelter; maybe not from a “setsuden” (saving electricity) point of view. An average store’s monthly electricity bill comes to 300,000 yen. The switch to LED lighting proceeds slowly but surely, it is pleasant to report.