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Convenience stores address labor crunch with automation, shorter hours

JIJI

The major convenience store chains are opening new stores even though the nation’s growing manpower shortage is making it increasingly difficult to maintain 24-hour operations.

Some of them are overcoming the shortages, which include part-time staff, by promoting automation. But one big chain has begun closing some branches late at night when traffic is slow.

As competition grows, how each company adjusts to the labor shortage may reflect their differing management styles, experts say.

FamilyMart Co. has experimented with closing outlets late at night or switching to vending machine-based operations. FamilyMart President Takashi Sawada says 24-hour operations aren’t necessary at some stores.

Lawson Inc. has developed a system that lets customers conduct transactions at unattended checkout counters late at night using a smartphone app. It will test the system this spring.

Convenience stores can also serve as disaster response and crime prevention bases because they are open 24 hours, Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu says.

Industry leader Seven-Eleven Japan Co. plans to maintain round-the-clock operations as well.

“The best measure (against the labor shortage) is to prepare a good working environment,” Seven-Eleven Japan President Kazuki Furuya says.

“We’re not running short of staff,” Furuya said, expressing confidence in the company’s ability to secure manpower.

There are disadvantages to closing late at night, including with deliveries, Furuya said.

In the meantime, Secoma Co., which runs Seicomart, the largest convenience store chain in Hokkaido, only lets a quarter of its stores run all night. In fact, about half of its stores were closed on New Year’s Day.

Secoma, based in Sapporo, makes good working environments and flexible schedules its priority to deal with fluctuating demand, a company official said.