Japanese Stores Take Convenience To a New Level

Across Japan, convenience stores that offer an abundance of services for their customers are booming, despite broad economic hardships. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 8, 2008

YOKOHAMA, Japan, Nov. 7 -- Sony sinks, Toyota tumbles, and the Nikkei stock index plunges to lows not seen for more than a quarter of a century. But the global financial storm can't rattle Japan's convenience stores, where sales are up smartly.

These hardy and still-multiplying spawn of 7-Eleven now number about 41,700, and they are arguably the most convenient convenience stores on Earth.

At Happy Lawson, a kid-friendly store that overlooks Yokohama Harbor, you can buy fresh sushi and carbon offsets, pay income tax and change diapers, book airplane tickets and sip vodka coolers. There's hot soup, cold beer, fresh bread, clean toilets, french fries, earwax remover, spotless floors, and a broadband-empowered machine that will order home appliances, book concert tickets and sign you up for driver's ed.

No Big Gulp, no Slurpee, no mini-pizzas sweating grease under a hot light, but you can drop off luggage for the bullet train and park a stroller beside the bar that abuts the toddler play area. "For mothers to maybe have a sip of alcohol while children play is, I think, welcome," said Kazuo Kimera, a spokesman for Lawson Inc., which has about 8,600 convenience stores across Japan.

Americans invented the chain convenience store in Dallas in 1927, and it is still going strong. There are 146,294 of them in 50 states with annual sales of $577 billion, or about 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, according to the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing.

Japan got into the game in 1974, when the first 7-Eleven opened. Since then, though, Japan has tirelessly improved on the original, doing to convenience stores what it has done to automobiles. Luckily for the American competition, Japanese convenience stores are not an export item.

"We have standardized the size of the store to 100 square meters and 2,500 products," said Tetsu Kaieda, managing director of the Japan Franchise Association. "We don't need anything more or anything less to sell convenience."

Inside these tight quarters, stores pack a galaxy of carefully calibrated services.

At FamilyMart, customers can make appointments for someone to vacuum their home. At 7-Eleven (now run by a Japanese-owned company), there's a drop-off laundry service. To cater to Japan's oldest-in-the-world population, the Lawson chain has invented "Lawson Plus" stores, which carry false-teeth cleanser, hair dye and bouquets suitable for graves. Aisles are wider, signs have larger print, and there are massage chairs with blood-pressure machines nearby.

Nearly any bill in Japan -- utility, phone, cable or tax -- can be paid at a convenience store. About $80 billion worth were paid that way last year.

Japan is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries, and convenience stores here are trying to corner the market on worst-case scenarios. When Big Ones hit, they let government agencies take advantage of their ubiquity for the delivery of emergency water and other supplies.

In cases of spouse abuse or any kind of crime, victims are welcomed at convenience stores, where a clerk will look after them under scalding fluorescent light until police arrive. Last year, 39,000 people fled to convenience stores for personal safety.

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