Mon, Oct 19, 2015 - Page 15 News List

Japan’s ‘konbini’ stores are open and stocked 24/7

AFP, TOKYO

Stocking anything from shirts to face masks, convenience stores open 24 hours a day, seven days a week have become an indispensable part of Japanese daily life, with the sector now worth more than Sri Lanka’s economy.

Their secret? Constant renewal.

A staggering 1.5 billion people pass through konbini stores — a Japanese abbreviation of the English word convenience — every month, with about 55,000 outlets throughout the country, including more than 7,000 in Tokyo alone.

Competition is fierce, with two of its biggest players, Family Mart and Uny Group, announcing days ago a merger to battle market leader 7-Eleven for a bigger slice of an industry that marketing newspaper Nikkei MJ values at about ¥10 trillion (US$84 billion).

That is comfortably more than the economic output of some entire nations, including Sri Lanka, Belarus and Azerbaijan.

“In our 40-years of experience, we understand that our purpose must be to offer something new all the time,” said Minoru Matsumoto, a spokesman for 7-Eleven, Japan’s largest chain with 18,000 stores.

“Every time we extend what’s on offer, we are creating new customers rather than taking away customers from somewhere else,” he said.

Despite being so ubiquitous, the sector has yet to show any sign of reaching saturation point, with the number of shops — which are run on a franchise system — rising 5 percent from last year.

According to the Japan Franchise Association, the average Japanese visits a konbini store 11 times a month and the average outlet serves about 1,000 customers a day.

While such stores are common across Asia, experts say the key to their success in Japan is their finely tuned supply chains that can monitor stock down to a single toothbrush, allowing them to sell an unparalleled array of goods.

As well as the usual drinks and snacks, visitors in konbini are confronted with a smorgasbord of useful items such as hygiene products, batteries, umbrellas, face masks, memory cards and phone chargers.

Complex logistics software keeps track of things like demographics, weather and the school holidays to predict what each store will need more of at a given times.

“If there’s a school feast day in the vicinity of a konbini ... we will know we need to have more onigiri [stuffed rice balls],” Matsumoto said.

And in a work-oriented culture like Japan, where employees spend some of the longest hours in the world in the office, they also offer a home away from home.

Konbinis act as a sort of 24-hour administration center, where customers can obtain official certificates, photocopy and fax documents, pay bills, withdraw cash and book tickets. You can get your mail and Internet delivery items sent to the store.

In a recent report, Toray Corporate Business Research senior analyst Tomomi Nagai estimated 70 percent of items offered are renewed or repackaged each year.

Smaller stores have been struggling to survive in the face of such flexibility and even the big corporate giants like McDonalds and Starbucks are having to adapt after some konbini stores began offering fries and coffee.

“We apply a strategy of domination,” Matsumoto said.

“Even if we have a 7-Eleven on a crossroad, a second is entirely justified as we might be missing out on customers on the other side of the road,” he said.

At the same time, the konbini chains themselves are all in fierce competition with each other.

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