Perfectly convenient: In praise of small shops

There are tens of thousands of little shops in Japan, which offer everyday goods at reasonable prices. Family Mart, 7-11 and Lawson dominate the local retail scene and now even Ikea wants a slice of the market. 

The shops are often not much cherished by the locals. But this week’s guest Japan Story blogger, David Tonge loves them.

Every time I arrive in Japan, my first place for shopping is the convenience store, known in Japanese by a name derived from the English – a konbini.

I go there to pick up tea, milk and snacks to help me get through my first night, when I am usually unsettled by jet lag. Inside the store, I keep my eye out for new things, such as seasonal foods, items from a particular region of Japan or some imaginatively marketed new delight. 

In the summer, I often find goods themed with melon – everything from notebooks to energy drinks and even fruit salad sandwiches! In the autumn, I see lots of pumpkin-themed produce, among the ghoulish Halloween decorations.

To me, the Japanese konbini has an almost magic pull. I am trying to work out why. Surely it cannot be due to the extremely bright strip lights or the sterility of the retail space? Perhaps it’s due to the musical sound of the door chimes. Or maybe it’s the slightly creepy way the cashiers try cup their hands around the hands of the customers, to try prevent them dropping their change? 

Konbinis are not just for food shopping. They often provide a kind of restaurant, with tables outside where you can eat instant noodles or snacks. Smart stores now have quite comfortable seating inside and places where you can use a computer or read a magazine. They have also upgraded their coffee, which used to be horrible. The 7-11 chain sells coffee which is as good as Starbucks in my view. 

You can also use the konbini to pay your bills or buy tickets for the cinema. In addition, they sell clothes, including underwear, and until recently they even sold soft porn magazines, although I believe these are being removed from most shops.

The konbini is a common setting for Japanese TV dramas. Unfortunately, their hardworking staff tend to be portrayed as hapless or pitiful. A konbini cashier was the star of the book “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, which became a huge international bestseller. She did not seem a happy or fulfilled person in her professional life. 

For konbinis to continue, they will need to find more staff. There are barely enough people to work in the shops at the moment and Japan’s population is shrinking. One of the chains, Family Mart, is using robots to stack its shelves. Others are employing immigrants from China and the Philippines. 

I hope konbinis don’t disappear. If they adapt they should survive. They are convenient and they meet real human needs. They are also a retail space where one can experience something of authentic Japan.

Photos by David Tonge