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Members of the international press who were assigned to cover the Tokyo Olympics prior to the pandemic were no doubt licking their lips at the prospect of nights on the town. With 212 Michelin-starred restaurants, Tokyo is one of the culinary capitals of the world.

Once they arrived, however, they found their movements severely restricted due to virus-prevention measures imposed by the government. Even if they had been free to move about, they would have found that food and beverage businesses were obliged to close by 8 p.m.

So while impatient editors back at the home office drummed their collective fingers in anticipation of the requisite number of column inches, the locked-down reporters were shut into their accommodations, and left to pour boiling water over plastic bowls of instant noodles.

It was a conundrum that might have even challenged the likes of Franz Kafka.

One solution was to spin stories about one of the few places the scribes were allowed to shop: konbini (convenience stores). Those stories were then fodder for a number of Japanese publications.

The Tokyo Shimbun spoke to distribution analyst Hiroaki Watanabe to get to the bottom of why places like Family Mart and Lawson were objects of such fascination to the visiting press.

“The two big differences between Japan and overseas are the overwhelming variety of merchandise and the tastiness,” he said. “In Japan’s case, merchandise is developed according to market needs, and the stores’ product selection is changed frequently in response to customer preferences. In order to supply high-quality food ingredients, the items are produced in specialty kitchens, with deliveries made to stores two or three times a day.”

Meiji University professor Motoo Unno, who lived in the United States for 13 years, underscored the contrast between convenience stores in the two countries in the same Tokyo Shimbun piece.

“Shops in the United States don’t carry women’s stockings or men’s underwear, nor do they sell books,” he said. “In high-crime areas, the entrance and exit doors are reinforced with metal bars. The windows, too. I’ve seen posters in them that read, ‘Stop the killing.’

“I would expect that people accustomed to shopping in such places would be shocked when they visit a convenience store in Japan, where women can go alone to shop at night, for instance. The awareness toward personal safety is completely different.”

Despite the recent round of praise, Japan’s konbini have been taking their lumps as of late. The front page headlines for the Nikkei MJ of Aug. 18 read, “Convenience store survey for fiscal 2020. First-ever decline in revenues: Hit directly by coronavirus.”

The thrice-weekly trade publication reported that last year marked the first year-on-year decline for convenience stores since record-keeping began in 1981. Not even the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s and the stock market crash of 2008 had a similarly negative impact.

During 2020, the nation’s three largest chains — 7-Eleven (21,167 outlets), Family Mart (16,646) and Lawson (14,476) — accounted for ¥10.359 trillion out of total nationwide convenience store sales of ¥11.886 trillion. All three, however, reported drops in sales turnover, with 7-Eleven down by 2.8%, Family Mart by 6.8% and Lawson by 9.8%.

To cope with slumping sales, more stores have taken steps to reduce their operating costs. One way to do this has been to cut back on operating hours. Outlets taking such measures since August of last year included approximately 300 7-Elevens, 700 Family Marts and 400 Lawsons.

More franchise operators have begun to adopt unmanned (automated) shops. While such stores actually do keep at least two workers on the premises, the system is said to reduce labor costs by as much as 50%. This can make such shops more competitive, particularly in locales with an overconcentration of rival shops.

One interesting new development is to offer cheaper merchandise. Nikkei MJ reported that some 7-Eleven outlets have begun setting up sales corners offering merchandise sourced from the Daiso chain of 100-yen shops. As many as 200 outlets are expected to be offering such items by the end of 2021.

On the bright side, the article noted that outlays per individual customer grew last year to an average of ¥618.2 per purchase — a 6.8% gain from 2019.

“More people are doing all their shopping at convenience stores,” a spokesperson for one of the major chains told Nikkei MJ.

Last year, e-commerce transactions in Japan surpassed those at konbini for the first time, and 7-Eleven Japan has jumped on the bandwagon, issuing challenges to Amazon and Uber Eats, among others. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported this week that 7-Eleven is gearing up to deploy home delivery services that, ideally, will bring food items, sundries and other merchandise to customers’ doorsteps in as little as 30 minutes from receipt of order — the same time boasted by pizza delivery services. 7-Eleven’s system, to be initially launched in parts of Hokkaido, Tokyo and Hiroshima, charges a flat rate of ¥330 on orders of ¥1,000 and over, with orders accepted up to 11 p.m.

Luckily, the move comes after the Olympics have finished. Otherwise, the international press may not have had an excuse to leave the confines of their hotel rooms at all.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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