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When FamilyMart Co. opens a store in Hollywood, Calif., in July, the first Japanese convenience store in the U.S. might not be perceived as such by locals.

The major chain is determined to make its convenience stores as Japanese as possible. Japan imported the basic concept of convenience stores from the U.S. three decades ago.

“We have no intention of just making the kind of convenience stores that already exist in the U.S.,” Shiro Inoue, chief executive of Famima Corp., the chain’s U.S. unit, said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“We will bring Japanese ‘konbini’ there,” he said, referring to the common Japanese mispronunciation of the English term “convenience.”

The chain plans to sell Americans some 140 original food items, including “bento” boxed meals, rice balls, sushi and bread.

“We are planning to open 200 outlets by the end of 2009,” he said.

The chain has already entered markets in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and China. It operates some 11,300 outlets, including 5,000 abroad.

The first U.S. store will be built in a posh shopping district in West Hollywood, with two more Los Angeles-area outlets planned for Santa Monica and Westwood this year, Inoue said.

While the firm has said it will focus on the West Coast for the foreseeable future, Inoue did not rule out the possibility of expansion into the East Coast.

The planned stores, targeted at high-end shoppers, will be modeled after Famima Yebisu Garden Place Store in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, which is an upscale version of regular FamilyMart outlets.

Company officials take extra care to avoid describing the planned U.S. outlets as convenience stores due to the poor image of such stores in that country.

“They will be convenient stores,” Inoue said, “but not convenience stores.”

Yasuyuki Sasaki, retail analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) Ltd., agrees there is a problem with image.

“It might have changed now,” Sasaki said. “But until around the late 1980s, the image of convenience stores in the U.S. was that of run-down, dangerous places.”

Convenience stores in Japan are criticized for offering a nocturnal hangout spot for teenagers, but are nevertheless generally well-maintained stores where young women can be seen shopping alone at all hours of the night.

Convenience stores have become part of everyday life for many Japanese, who treat the outlets as an extension of their home refrigerator.

Japanese convenience stores are also known for sophisticated operational systems.

One of Seven-Eleven Japan Co.’s innovations was its sales data system, later adopted by its rivals. The system enables efficient ordering at each outlet by offering data about local events on any given day, including festivals, as well as what items sold well the same day a year earlier.

Seven-Eleven Japan, the nation’s largest chain, was launched three decades ago by supermarket chain Ito-Yokado Co., which has been credited with creating a unique, profitable retail outlet by transforming the American concept.

But stock analysts are cold toward FamilyMart’s venture into the U.S.

Credit Suisse’s Sasaki said: “Analysts are taking a wait-and-see stance. Although Japanese convenience stores are very competitive, I am not sure they can succeed there.”

He pointed out two hurdles: whether the chains can operate stores the same way as they do in Japan, and if they can, whether the stores can find favor with shoppers.

One of the operational challenges is to sell original food items.

Major chains in Japan, including FamilyMart, exclusively contract food manufacturers to produce their bento and other items. The food makers dedicate plants and lines to a specific menu for a single client, allowing the chains to continuously improve quality and cut costs.

But in the U.S., the number of outlets will be too small for such an operation to make business sense, Sasaki said.

Nevertheless, he said FamilyMart is adopting the right strategy.

He said: “Convenience stores cannot expect much growth at home anymore. They have no choice but to go overseas.”

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