Amid the coronavirus epidemic in Japan, franchise owners of convenience stores are torn between worrying about infection risks from continuing operations and a sense of mission about serving as part of infrastructure for daily life.

“I will continue as much as possible, if it’s helpful to customers,” said the owner of a convenience store in Tokyo.

But the store owner also mentioned his responsibilities to his store’s workers, as well as his own family.

The owner said he was told by his franchiser to install sheets to block droplets between customers and store clerks at register counters.

“They only say ‘Make sure to do it’ and ‘Buy them (blocking sheets) at home centers,'” the owner complained. “They do nothing but add pressure, with no financial aid.”

In the city of Kawasaki, one convenience store has been closed since Tuesday last week. “It was a difficult decision,” its owner said.

“Having been open for 20 years, we have many regular customers. I feel terribly sorry to them now,” he said.

The store shutdown came after tough negotiations with the franchiser side, which was reluctant to give consent, according to the owner.

Just before the closure, the Kawasaki store was being run by only three workers including the owner himself and his wife, as well as one dispatched by the franchise headquarters.

The store usually has over 20 part-time and other workers. They started to take leave, however, citing fears of being infected with the novel coronavirus.

“I can’t make them work in such a situation that a state of emergency is declared” over the coronavirus, the store owner said.

In Japan, there were a total of 55,710 convenience stores belonging to seven major chains as of March, according to the Japan Franchise Association.

Most of them are not directly run by the chain operators but by franchisees who face the risk of seeing their franchise contracts canceled or being required to pay penalties if they decide to shut their stores or shorten opening hours without consent from their franchisers.

“In principle, franchise owners can’t change the operating formats stipulated in contracts,” said lawyer Yuki Fujii, familiar with issues related to franchise chains.

“But the case for closing stores or shortening hours seems rational during a widespread epidemic, so it’s not easy for franchisers to unilaterally discontinue contracts with franchise owners,” Fujii said.

On Monday, the Japan Franchise Association said sales at convenience stores across Japan fell 5.8 percent in March from a year earlier as people refrained from going outside amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Same-store sales of seven major convenience store operators totaled ¥833.90 billion, marking the first decline in three months, the industry group said.

The number of customers in March dropped 8.2 percent from a year before to 1.28 billion, even though most convenience stores remained open amid the pandemic.

Average spending per customer rose 2.5 percent to ¥649, reflecting strong demand for cooked and frozen food items while people stayed home longer, the business body said.

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