A recent dispute between Seven-Eleven Japan Co. and one of its franchise stores has brought the convenience store industry’s around-the-clock service into the spotlight amid a severe nationwide labor crunch.

A franchise store in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, now closes between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. after ending its 24-hour service on Feb. 1 due to a shortage of labor. But Seven-Eleven, a unit of Seven & I Holdings Co., has been pressing the store to resume 24-hour per day operations.

Seven-Eleven’s 24-hour service started in Japan in 1975 at a store in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. Rival chains, including Lawson Inc. and FamilyMart Co., a unit of FamilyMart Uny Holdings Co., followed suit.

The convenience store industry has become a key player in the Japanese retail sector and more than 90 percent of the over 55,000 stores in the country are open around the clock.

The 24-hour service is primarily aimed at meeting demand from customers at night, but convenience store chains also stress their stores’ role as part of social infrastructure, including helping prevent nighttime crime and supplying goods in the event of disasters.

The merits of the around-the-clock service, the chains say, also include the use of the quieter late-night hours to check products and clean up.

In recent years, however, many franchise stores have faced difficulty operating late at night because it is becoming harder to secure part-time workers amid a nationwide labor crunch.

“Over the last three or four years, more and more stores have been forced to shut because of a lack of workers, rather than a lack of sales,” said a senior official at a labor union of franchise store owners. The union has been asking for flexibility in setting service hours.

In some cases, convenience store chains allow for exceptions to the 24-hour service standard. Lawson has allowed some of its franchise stores to close late at night, while FamilyMart is testing shorter operating hours in Kyoto.

Convenience store chains are apparently concerned that if permission to close late at night is given too readily, they will face a rush of such requests from stores.

But if the plight of shops goes unaddressed, convenience store chains will face the risk of losing more part-time workers and even store owners, hurting their ability to maintain store networks and the bottom line.

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