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Moves are afoot among major convenience store chains to review the uniform 24-hour operation of their stores, the standard industry practice since Seven-Eleven Japan Co. started it a year after it opened its first outlet in 1974. The sustainability of 24-hour operations came under the spotlight after the owner of a 7-Eleven franchise in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, started closing his store in February during late-night hours, saying he could no longer keep up around-the-clock service due to a staffing shortage that left him unable to take much time off for several months running. The feud between the owner and the top convenience store chain operator, which requires that its franchisees in principle maintain 24-hour service, eventually led the government to call on major chains to come up with plans to address the woes of such owners.

The store chains have meanwhile launched or expanded test operations of reduced hours at some of their outlets. Seven-Eleven Japan has indicated that it will take a flexible view of its 24-hour obligation in considering the circumstances of each store — although it will not change its round-the-clock service policy. To save on manpower, some of them have starting experimenting with self-service checkout machines; Lawson Inc. plans to test the feasibility of leaving some stores unmanned between midnight and early morning. Apparently, the chain operators themselves are exploring a new business model that responds to the accelerating manpower crunch. Such efforts need to continue to keep the convenient service of their chain stores sustainable.

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