Dateline Tokyo, Japan: Convenience store as Shinto shrine

WHEREVER YOU may find yourself in Japan, from the old temple neighbourhoods of Kyoto to the ski resorts of Nagano, you will never be very far from the gaudy, neon-lit comfort of what everybody here knows as the "konbini", a Japanised contraction of the English "convenience store".

The concept is American. But, like so many foreign imports, the konbini has transformed itself over the years into a uniquely Japanese institution. If the great Tokyo department stores, such as Tokyu, Seibu, and Mitsukoshi, are the cathedrals of Japanese consumerism, then the konbini are its local Shinto shrines.

In town and cities, they are found every 500 yards, like manned vending machines tucked into the narrowest of sites, between office buildings, neighbourhood restaurants and apartment blocks.

Within these cramped confines, the convenience stores cram as much as it is possible to pack along aisles barely wide enough for shoppers to pass one another - food (of the dried, sugared, processed or microwavable variety), magazines (including manga, the ubiquitous Japanese comic books), and the handiest of household items. If it's macrobiotic alfalfa shoots you are after, or an improving book, don't waste your time here. But if you find yourself at 1.30 in the morning without a toothbrush, a battery, toilet paper, a soft porn magazine, a packet of cotton wool buds, cigarettes or condoms, the convenience store (staffed by bored but impeccably polite teenagers) is always there and always open.

For years, the convenience store market was in expansion, including individually owned, family-run shops, along with the big chains including Seven-11, Sunkus and Lawson's, there are an estimated 50,000 of them, or one konbini for every 2,400 Japanese. Even before the intense economic gloom of the last two years, the country was already suffering konbini saturation, and the most serious recession since the war has hit the retail industry worse than most. Over the last two years, konbini sales and new store openings have varied from the stagnant to the negative. With an unprecedented consumer slowdown, convenience stores are being forced to find new ways of being convenient.

One bright idea, with which several chains are testing, aims to capitalise on two strands of Japanese consumer life. The first is the surprisingly low penetration of the Internet into Japanese homes, and the corresponding underdevelopment of e-commerce. The second has to do with the convenience stores' greatest advantage - their ubiquity - and their great drawback: their lack of storage space.

As the exact opposite of big, out-of-town hypermarkets, the konbinis must by their nature be close to the action and accessible to the pedestrian, meaning high rents and limited floor space.

The 6,400 shops run by Lawson, the country's second largest chain, have an average area of less than 100 square metres, and they maximise their space with the "just-in-time" system of delivery. Vans come and go several times a day so items, especially food, can be rotated around the shelves to appeal to consumers as they head to work, take their lunch break, or return home in the evening. But however cunning and flexible, the space limitation remains and the choice of merchandise on offer is thin.

Lawson is developing a system bearing the intriguing name of Loppi, which are online IBM terminals, using Internet technology, which dramatically expand the range of produce that convenience stores can offer. In the last 18 months, the firm has invested Y7bn (pounds 40m) in putting one into each of its outlets; similar systems can be found in shops run by other chains. The Loppi screens fall short of full Internet access but allow the stores to offer an additional 1,000 items with no extra stock. "The core value of a convenience store is its location close to a customer's home or office," says Makoto Tazaki of IBM Japan. "Now a customer can buy computer software or book a holiday as easily as pick up a carton of milk. This amounts to a revolution in the retail business model."

The Loppi resembles a bank cashpoint machine with a touch-sensitive screen, offering goods from CDs and luggage to video games and computer software. The release of a recent hit video game for the Sony Playstation increased sales of one convenience chain, Family Mart, by 9 per cent, although the boom was shortlived. Certain kinds of software can be downloaded on the spot, but most products are ordered and paid for in cash at the shop's cash till. Small items are picked up from the konbini a few day's later; larger goods are delivered to the customer's home.

Ticket sales for concerts and special events have been particularly successful . "On some days, we've sold more than 100,000 sports and concert tickets online," says Naouyuki Kiriyma of Lawson's new business division. "When a popular computer game goes on sale, we've had as many as 3,000 orders a minute." There is also a travel service offered through Loppi by the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), although this is a bit of a cheat, hardly amounting to an on-line service at all. Through the terminal, the customer enters where and when he wants to go. Instantly, a telephone in the wall rings at the end of which is a helpful JTB employee, who confirms the details and accepts payment, either by on-line credit card or at the till. Not, in fact, much different from telephoning a travel agent directly.

Mr Kiriyama reckons that the terminals will lure five extra customers into each store every day - which sounds modest until you realise that the average konbini customer spends only 500 yen (pounds 2.78) per visit. The goods available on Loppi are expensive compared to the konbini's physical stock. "The use of on-line terminals in stores is far more advanced in Japan than in the United States," says Mr Tazaki. "Japan has developed a unique retail structure with a convenience store within five minutes of everyone's home. Although PC penetration in Japan is much less than in the US, the proximity of online terminals in convenience stores offers all Japanese people the chance to shop online."

Not everyone is convinced that the Loppi amounts to more than a novelty, or that it will even begin to offset the terrible effects of the consumer slump. "Overall it adds very little," says Michael Allen, retail analyst for ING Barings in Tokyo. "Games software is very cyclical: it does very well for a while and then tanks. They've tried catalogue sales in convenience stores before and they didn't work. This is just a catalogue, but on a computer."

But how many catalogues offer you seaweed-flavoured crisps, a holiday in Las Vegas and novelty packs of multi-coloured prophylactics, all within five minutes of home?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor