The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In honor of 7/11: How Japan slurped up 7-Eleven

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It’s July 11. Time for a free Slurpee at 7-Eleven.

Yes, the giveaway is real. The company will give away 500,000 gallons of Slurpee today — and other free stuff throughout the week.

We’re not kidding. Shut down your computer or mobile device. Go get one now. This Web site has a store finder.

But as 12 ounces of cool, slushy, sugary treat slide down your throat, remember: You are tasting the end of the American dream.

Because, 23 years ago — before its lost decade of economic stagnation — Japan ate 7-Eleven.

It’s a sad tale of bad debt and bitter reckoning that will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who once feared the Land of the Rising Sun would conquer the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Hear those violins? Here we go.

In Dallas in 1927, “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green started selling milk, bread and eggs from the ice house of the Southland Ice Company in the evenings and on holidays.

In other words: Uncle Johnny invented the convenience store.

Southland founder Joe C. Thompson Jr. noticed. Within ten years, he had 60 ice houses/retail outlets.

Southland sold canned goods. It sold gasoline. It sold cold watermelon.

In 1946, Southland’s stores became “7-Eleven” to reflect their hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. No store had ever dared keep its doors open so often.

The business grew with the rise of the automobile. 7-Eleven went to Florida and Pennsylvania.

In 1963, one got so busy after a football game in Austin that it stayed open for 24 hours.

It was a revolution — the beginning of the 24-7 7-Eleven.

Soon, there were 1,000 stores.

Then, in 1965, another innovation — a refreshingly mushy drink licensed from the ICEE company rechristened “the Slurpee.”

With 1,500 locations, 7-Eleven brought a plague of brain freeze to the nation.

Yet another disruption: to-go coffee.

By 1969, 3,500 stores — some in Canada. By 1974, 5,000 stores — some in Mexico and Japan.

More novelties: Big Gulps and Big Bites.

And then: the 1980s.

In the Reagan-Gekko-Duran Duran era, corporate raiders attacked Southland — still 7-Eleven’s parent company.

”It’s no secret that Southland’s convenience stores are perceived as a very solid, highly promising franchise that could be built upon or meshed with other retail trades,” William E. Ainsworth, an analyst with Nassau Securities, said at the time. ”The rumors were that a lot of folks had their eyes on them.”

But the Thompsons wanted to keep their business in the family.

Fighting for its life, Southland took on $3 billion in debt to go private — just months before the 1987 stock market crash.

This was bad.

In 1991, after losing $1.5 billion in three years under the weight of high interest payments on its junk bonds, Southland went bust.

Its savior? Ito-Yokado — its Japanese subsidiary, which bought a controlling stake.

“What you have that’s extraordinary is a Japanese investor that will live with bankruptcy,” a Salomon Brothers analyst told the L.A. Times back then. “In Japan, that’s anathema, but Southland has done a good job educating them” — about how Americans did business in the Ivan Boesky years.

Optimism abounded. After bankruptcy, the storybook company from Dallas had a very different story: The Japanese were better at running the company Uncle Johnny had midwifed.

The Japanese chain is showing that this nation, known more for its skills in exploiting technology, can also refine and retool a distribution business,” the New York Times reported in 1991. 

The article: “New Japanese Lesson: Running a 7-11.” 

In 2005, the Japanese bought the rest of the company.

Why? Stateside, 7-Eleven was lagging behind.

The U.S. company “must increase its investment in merchandising, store renovation, distribution and logistics systems, and information systems,” the Japanese said.

The student had become the master.

Just like in Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” — or “Kill Bill.”

So there you have it — from ice house to poor house to Asia in eight decades.

Today, 7-Eleven is alive and well. Seven & I Holdings, its parent company, is traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It has almost 53,000 stores around the world.

Hey, it can even afford dole out 5 million Slurpees gratis.

And Seven & I isn’t pulling the strings from Tokyo — at least not entirely. A 7-Eleven Corporate office is still in Dallas.

But isn’t it a little bit sad that a family business defending itself against a hostile takeover got deep in debt during the junk bond craze and went broke — then had to be rescued by a junior partner capable of doing a better job?


But just look at this Slurpee selection!

Time: “Any flavor goes, so take your pick among the many options laid out at, including Summertime Lime, Alienade, Peach Dragon Fruit, Red Apple Chill, Fanta Oddball Orange Flavor, Mango Flavor With a Kick, or for the truly adventurous, Grape.”