With over 56,000 convenience stores scattered throughout Japan, there’s one for every 2,000 or so people! Considering the enormous success of convenience stores, or konbini for short, it’s hard to believe that it’s only been five decades since the very first Japanese konbini opened its doors in 1969.
The Launch of 7-Eleven in Japan
Five years later in 1974, the first brand-name convenience store opened when the Japanese retailer Ito-Yokado joined forces with the American company Southland Corporation to launch 7-Eleven in Japan. Ito-Yokado expanded aggressively, taking over shuttered businesses and establishing locations in residential neighborhoods where zoning laws prevented bigger stores from opening.
However, despite their rapid proliferation, 7-Eleven stores were slow to catch on until the launch of onigiri rice balls in 1978. Portable, easy-to-eat, and available a wide range of flavors, onigiri have been one of 7-Eleven’s most popular products since they were first offered. The development of region-specific products like onigiri is one of the reasons why konbini have been able to adapt so seamlessly to the Japanese market.
The Expansion of Konbini
By the year 1980, there were more than 10,000 konbini in Japan. Competition among different chains was fierce, which spurred innovations in operation. 7-Eleven adopted the Point of Sales (POS) system in 1982, which enabled each location to manage their own inventory, product ordering, and deliveries. This hands-on system allowed store employees to cater to its specific locale and customers, anticipating and responding to their needs.
Nowadays, most konibini receive deliveries several times a day, ensuring that the products on the shelves are always fresh.
What Makes Konbini Unique
Different convenience store brands market their unique selling points to stand out from the crowd. While 7-Eleven is classic, Family Mart is known for their iconic “Fami-Chiki”, a well-seasoned fried chicken cutlet, and Lawson’s offers healthier options in addition to the normal snack fare.
Beyond simply selling food and drink, konbini also offer a vast array of services. At most konbini, one can access free wifi, buy event tickets and passes, withdraw money from the ATM, pay for utility bills and online orders, purchase stamps, and pick up deliveries. An inextricable aspect of life in Japan, konbini truly live up to their name as places of convenience.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.