Sat, Nov 13, 2010 - Page 12 News List

Taiwanese stores take convenience to divine levels

By Argin Chang  /  Reuters, TAIPEI

A man looks for items at a convenience store in Taipei yesterday.

Photo: Nicky Loh, Reuters

Need divine protection but pressed for time? Don’t worry, just drop into one of the local convenience stores, make a donation and an offering will be made in your name at one of the country’s most famous temples.

Such spiritual services symbolize the innovations available at Taiwan’s convenience stores, whose increasing dominance of the local shopping scene reflects a deep social change as better wages and opportunities draw more people to city life.

Food shops, cafes, banks, travel agents, offices and even recyclers rolled into one, convenience stores are always open and on almost every street corner, catering to an ever-faster pace of life in the cities.

“As people’s life patterns change because of urbanization, they are willing to pay a tad more money to buy convenience and time,” said Chang Chia-ming (張家銘), a sociology professor at Soochow University in Taipei.

“The ‘convenience store-ization’ of society is most intense in Japan, and then Taiwan. Now it is making its way to some cities in China too,” Chang said.

Most apartments in the urban areas are only at most 500m from a President Chain Store Corp (統一超商) 7-Eleven store or a Taiwan FamilyMart Co (全家便利商店) store — the two major chains.

Taiwan has one store for every 2,489 people, the highest density in the world, and figures from Nielsen show each Taiwanese shops in one on average 17 times a month.

“The higher the density and competition, the more convenience they have to provide,” Chang said.

The dense interweaving of convenience stores and local culture may have begun in Japan, where the stores are ubiquitous and are affectionately known as konbini, but Taiwan’s stores take services offered to new heights.

While sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee or eating a hot bowl of noodles, for example, you can pay your utility or credit card bill, insurance premium, tax or school tuition fees, or even order a replacement driving license. FamilyMart expects more than 100 million bills to be paid at its stores this year.

Don’t forget to bring used batteries and compact discs to exchange for a discount, or get US$5 for a broken notebook PC or US$0.50 for a mobile phone. One chain even offered garbage disposal for a short time.

For some, the stores almost seem to be life itself.

“It doesn’t matter where I live, I will survive as long as there is a convenience store,” said Ophelia Chen, a 30-year-old record store manager.

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