Japan’s convenience stores are world famous for being bastions of great customer experience. Aside from selling tasty food, drinks, tobacco, and other daily necessities, these stores are truly convenient.
Konbini, as they are known in Japan, provide a sundry list of one-stop services, ranging from postal delivery and receiving, to being able to pay your utilities over the counter, and even the ability to book concert tickets using in-store kiosks. Stores are clean and well-lit, with courteous staff providing quick, efficient service.
Importantly, konbini are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Japanese shoppers and tourists have come to expect this type of convenience wherever they may be in the country. Even konbini in remote villages are expected to provide the same level of service as their counterparts in the middle of Tokyo. Konbini also play an important function in disaster-prone Japan, serving as aid distribution centres in times of need.
However, this level of service comes at a cost. Japan’s declining population has made workers harder to find. Tales of punishing work schedules have struck a chord in a country that holds a sometimes lethal corporate devotion to working long hours. Last year, Japan’s labour ministry approved 246 claims related to hospitalization or death from overwork, according to government statistics, which show the retail industry as one of the biggest sources of complaints.
The vast majority of Japanese konbinis belong to three chains: 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson. They are owned by individual franchisees, while the companies provide them with a storefront and access to a logistics network that keeps their shelves full of rice balls, cigarettes and boxed meals. They set operating procedures with an eye toward protecting the brand and providing a uniform customer experience.
Therefore, 7-Eleven franchisee Mitoshi Matsumoto is doing something unthinkable in the 24-hour, 7-day-a-week industry: take a day off. Matsumoto announced in November his plans to close up shop so he and his two full-time employees could take off on New Year’s Day, Japan’s most important holiday which falls on January 1. Matsumoto’s store already made headlines earlier for closing from 1am to 6am daily, without permission from 7-Eleven’s franchise headquarters.
Among the demands made of franchisees is to keep the store running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The model worked well until around a decade ago, when hungry for growth, 7-Eleven and its competitors began a war of attrition, flooding the country with more locations in an attempt to steal market share. Sometimes, stores from the same chain opened across the street from each other, or had two locations in the same building. Each new shop cut into its neighbours’ profits.
At the same time, Japan’s labour pool is shrinking, driving up hourly wages and making it difficult to find reliable workers. Many franchisees – who are responsible for paying their staff’s wages – were forced to work more of their own shifts. For franchisors, the cost of opening new locations is minimal, but for franchisees, the financials don’t match the hours put in.
Matsumoto’s stand has caused 7-Eleven to terminate its franchise contract with him, citing customer complaints. However, fellow convenience store owners and employees have come out in support of Matsumoto – but none are willing to put their store on the line. Giving a great customer experience need not be at a human cost, given the increasing pace of automation. Self-checkout and self-service kiosks can be used to alleviate the labour shortage.
But Japan’s first-class customer service does rely on the human touch, so it is expected that konbini owners and employees will have to soldier on longer.