Japan's "Konbini" Tradition

Japan`s Convenience Stores are Cool, Efficient but Less and Less Human. Philip Turner takes a closer look at a Japanese retail cornerstone.

Like most people in Tokyo, I live within two minutes of a convenience store.  At my previous apartment there were four of them, all within two minutes.

You might wonder just how much `convenience` people really need.  But the konbini phenomenon already so well-established in Japan is morphing still further into a neighbourhood omni-provider of daily goods and services.  In the process it is becoming ever more efficient and automated - but less and less human.

Convenience stores are one of the survivors of the great retail retraction. 

Japan's "Familymart" Konbini chain / image P Turner

Even before COVID, e-commerce, intense competition, and the cost of real estate had put the squeeze on conventional retail – and in particular the family-run shops that traditionally made up Japanese neighbourhoods.

These stores - usually tiny, down-to-earth, but also animated and lively -  sold everything from hardware to hats, fish, stationery and vegetables.  But they have become largely extinct – gobbled up by supermarkets, outlet stores and on-line shopping.  Banks are disappearing as well.

That leaves the ubiquitous and humble konbini as the main remaining local point of human commerce.

Throughout Japan there are nearly 56,000 konbini – one for every 2,200 people.

While the Japanese economy overall is estimated to have grown by 1.8% in 2023, konbini revenues rose by 4%.

The kombini won initial retail success by being super-efficient at providing daily necessities and snacks.  “Reizouko no kawari” they were called – a substitute fridge. 

The konbini went to a new level when they began selling alcohol – effectively killing off the old sakaya or sake shops. The product range was then expanded to the likes of business shirts, underwear and instant meals.

The stores have now reached saturation point – numbers have plateaued for several years – so the big franchises (the three main ones are 7-Eleven, FamilyMart and Lawson) have sought to add a range of additional services to anchor the konbini's dominant position in the local neighbourhood retail space.

The Family Mart near me lists photo-copying and printing; tickets for concerts and sports matches, gas, water and electricity bills as well as taxes, rates, health insurance and school fees.

Customers can also pick up their welfare payments and sports lottery tickets.

Most ATMs are now housed inside konbini , so you often have to enter a store just to get cash.

Despite their cramped spaces, some konbini have added a few seats so customers can sip their latte or eat their onigiri (rice balls) on the spot.

Last month, giant trading house Mitsubishi and telecoms operator KDDI offered US$3.3bn to take over the 14,600 Lawson stores in Japan.  Part of their strategy is to add services such as medical consultation and dispensing. 

Their approach doubles down on efficiency and convenience. 

Like Japan`s famous automatic vending machines which seem never to break down or be vandalized, the stores showcase exacting standards of maintenance and services.  Customers can pop in for a fresh latte (NZ$2 for a takeaway cup) or to print a document, confident that the machines will be operating 24-hours a day and the coffee will be as good as at a café.

With people living ever busier lives in ever smaller households, the konbini provide a handy place to have your on-line purchases delivered when you are out.

Underwaear and socks are a konbini staple/ imgae P Turner

They have also become part of local safety and emergency infrastructure.   

After the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011, the konbini played a vital role as accessible supply points.

Open all night, brightly lit and never far away, they have become safe havens for women seeking shelter from drunk or shady characters they may encounter in the street. 

Local authorities have embraced the stores as a crucial part of local service infrastructure – saving citizens from having to visit local city offices for bills, documents, receipts or signatures. 

Many people pay their bills, rates and taxes at the konbini. They can do so on-line as well, but older people often prefer to use the local store – and to pay their bills in cash.

Yet despite their success in winning the battle for the neighbourhood consumer dollar, the konbini can feel strangely cold and unfriendly places.

A (non-Japanese) writer for the Financial Times this month rhapsodized over the appeal of konbini as “places for people to gather”.  

But konbini are not substitute churches or community centres.  Nor do they resemble the old neighbourhood shops where locals could get to know the owners and bat the breeze about the weather, the baseball or the local stray cats.

For a start, conversation is not expected or encouraged, with staff or other customers.

Japan`s deepening labour shortage, long hours and low wages (the minimum wage in Tokyo is NZ$12 per hour) mean stores are increasingly reliant on young and part-time foreign workers – typically from China or Southeast Asia.  Their Japanese language skills are often not up to conversation – even if anyone sought to engage them.

The konbini are widely appreciated by the Japanese themselves not for their friendliness or warmth, but for the things they sell. 

As Japanese author Sayaka Murata explains in her bestselling novel Convenience Store Woman, “A convenience store has to be somewhere customers can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.”

The point of the konbini is – as the name says – convenience and quality. It is about getting the product or service you want as quickly as possible and then exiting, not pausing for human interaction.

This essential coolness is being reinforced by technology.

Japan has started to get its first unmanned stores.  

The unmanned konbini at Takanawa Station in Tokyo/ image Kaleb Uri-Ke

This month 7-Eleven announced it will open a series of mini-konbini with no staff at all in previously hard to operate areas like tower blocks and factories.   Customers will purchase goods by phone or credit card with no need for human interaction – allowing big savings on labour bills.

FamilyMart has introduced an unmanned payment system, and last month started using robots to clean floors in 300 of its stores.

Ministop has begun to develop tiny unmanned stores with an area of just over 3 square meters – little more than holes in a wall.

KDDI is keen to use drones to deliver goods from konbini in rural areas.

As Tsuneo Murai, a managing director at FamilyMart  told the media this month: “As the workforce decreases, we would like to coexist with robots in order to run stores with a small number of people”.

So, technology and labour shortfalls are likely to reduce even further the minimal human interaction customers currently have.  Customers will get ever more convenience, but the konbini are likely to become ever more temples of cool efficiency, where you can do all the transactions you want - without having to encounter a human being at all.   

And this seems to be just fine with the consumers.  Popping in and out of the local konbini may not involve conversation, but as they brush shoulders with fellow shoppers and enjoy consuming the enticing goods and services on offer, they still have a sense of belonging – to the  konbini community.

- Asia Media Centre