Business

Culture meets convenience as Japan's konbini stores bet that books go down well with a bento

Kyodo

With increased competition from online stores and digital alternatives, bookstores in Japan are belatedly following their overseas brethren out of business, so convenience store chains are stepping in to cater to readers who like to peruse a page or two before they buy.

Of the three biggest convenience store chains, Lawson Inc. already has books on sale at thousands of locations, Seven-Eleven Japan Co. is offering advanced sales of a popular children’s book, and FamilyMart Co. has integrated a bookstore with one of its outlets.

The convenience store chains are aiming to cash in on customers who are willing to pick up a book with their bento.

Lawson introduced books to its stores in June 2014 and has witnessed a gradual increase in sales. This has seen books also replacing magazines, which have seen a drop-off in sales in recent years.

About 4,000 Lawson outlets have dedicated bookshelf space, and there is a plan to expand the trend to another 1,000 locations over the next year.

The bookshelves contain around 100 titles and feature several new publications each week, including all the popular reads of the moment. The headquarters of the companies even provide weekly guidance on how the books should be displayed.

Men and women in their 40s and 50s make up almost half of all book buyers, meaning their tastes are catered to. Paperbacks by famous authors, titles linked to movies and television shows, as well as practical guides on a wide selection of themes such as cooking and health are sold.

Only new novels and thick volumes have proved to be duds, with customers preferring to buy the former at bookstores and the latter at times when they are easier to carry.

Four special editions of books by famous Japanese authors in publisher Kodansha Ltd.’s historical novel anthology were sold exclusively at Lawson outlets in late February. Prices for the coverless, paperback-sized books were purposely kept down as well.

According to estimates by Nippon Ryutsu Academy, run by major publishing agent Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc., sales of magazines at convenience stores dropped around 60 percent from 2007 through 2017. Installing bookshelves has helped offset that loss.

“People who don’t intend to buy a book tend to do so, and this has helped compensate for the recent slump in magazine sales,” said an official from Lawson’s entertainment group.

Advanced sales of a book adaptation of a movie based on the popular children’s book “Oshiri Tantei” (“The Butt Detective”), from Poplar Publishing Co., is one of Seven-Eleven’s hottest titles at one outlet in Tokyo.

The book about a walking, talking, butt detective who solves crimes and farts in the faces of criminals, gets a prominent place near the magazine section. The books, targeting elderly customers with grandchildren and parents with kids in tow, are selling briskly.

In fact, Seven-Eleven effectively won exclusive rights to sell “Oshiri Tantei” because it will not be available at bookstores until April.

In the meantime, FamilyMart opened a two-story integrated convenience and book store in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, at the end of February. Customers can add a book to their basket and buy it at the same cash register.

Formerly owned and operated as a subsidiary of Nippon Shuppan, the bookstore’s dwindling sales led to the change of tack. In the meantime, FamilyMart was looking to cash in on the store’s premium location in front of the train station.

“It is really tough to solely manage a bookstore, but there are strong calls to have bookstores survive, so we intend to spread (integrated stores),” said a Nippon Shuppan spokesperson.

A FamilyMart official cited the synergies created by the integration as a way to strengthen sales.

“Until now, the selections for book titles at convenience stores have been unsatisfactory, at best. This is why we want to utilize the expertise offered by bookstore workers.”