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TOYKO — Convenience stores in Japan — particularly those of the country’s leading operator, 7-Eleven Japan — operate at a level of efficiency and innovation far beyond what’s commonplace in the rest of the world, according to two veteran convenience store industry executives who recently visited the Asian nation.
Guy Strayer, foodservice director of Country Fair Inc., the Pennsylvania-based chain of more than 70 stores, and Australasian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS) CEO Jeff Rogut were invited by Asahi TV of Japan to participate in filming a behind-the-scenes look at the operation and inner workings of the Japanese convenience store industry, including exclusive access to the stores, factories and innovation center of 7-Eleven Japan.
What they witnessed in February was a highly professional industry that’s focused on the customer experience, and at the cutting-edge of innovation, according to Rogut.
“It was an enlightening experience,” Strayer told Convenience Store News.
Convenience stores are a major contributor to the Japanese economy. “They are a part of everyday life for the Japanese. They are visited frequently. They are influential in a social and political context, and they are run by some of the most successful convenience operators on the planet,” Rogut wrote in his association’s recent newsletter to members.
In Japan, Strayer and Rogut visited a new 7-Eleven store; toured the c-store retailer’s factories that produce food products exclusively for its 18,000 stores; and checked out the company’s innovation and distribution center.
Here are some highlights of their trip:
The new 7-Eleven store in Japan they visited was clean and well-organized, with clear signage and bright, well-lit shelves, and a spotless sales counter.
Food cabinets displayed fried chicken, doughnuts and steamed buns, while two coffee machines (one for hot, the other for iced), use the company’s own exclusive beans for grinding.
Rogut noted that an open, heated, shelved display with different teas can also be used as a chiller in the summer. There are separate hot water kettles for customers who buy cup noodles to take away.
Then, there are open food displays with more fresh foods — rice balls, sandwiches and lunch boxes, for instance — on glass shelves that can be pulled forward for ease of stocking and rotation.
Opposite these is the bakery offering, with fresh, wrapped products surrounded by softer, warmer lighting. Bread is sold in either loaves, packs of four slices or packs of six slices, providing real choice and convenience, Rogut observed.
The Japanese stores carry a full display of salty snacks, but have less emphasis on confectionery than their American or Australian counterparts. Magazines and newspapers are still strong sellers in Japan, and seasonal promotions like Valentine’s Day are huge.
Chilled beverages, including beer and wine, are well-represented, while frozen take-home meal solutions complement the fresh food offering.
More than 70 percent of the store’s products are 7-Eleven branded, and Rogut noted that the brand of 7-Eleven Japan’s holding company, Seven & I Holdings — the same parent company of the U.S. 7-Eleven chain — is promoted on the storefront.
“One of the most striking observations I made during my visit was the approach of staff in the store,” recalled Rogut. “While there are obvious cultural differences from the Australian retail experience, the energy and commitment of the employees I engaged was really impressive.”
Rogut described a very culturally different service experience. At a change of shift, he observed three employees gathered in the back office. They each recited the company pledge before running through “smiling techniques” and different methods for greeting and thanking customers.
“They actually practiced smiling,” he said, “and it is very successful.”
The retailer’s success is owed not only to a focus on customer service, but also actually knowing the customer. For each transaction, the cashier enters the gender and approximate age of the customer, with two rows of keys clearly marked for easy identification to ensure speed of data entry.
“Imagine how powerful this information would be,” commented Strayer. “To identify products by customer demographics and by the demographics of the shoppers to a store.”
Both Rogut and Strayer were impressed by the simplicity with which this important data is collected.
Hot and cold fresh food is delivered to the store three times a day, seven days a week.
“This means they are inventorying and ordering at each store for 300 fresh SKUs,” said Strayer. “And, if you’re counting, that means they are receiving delivery and rotating product three times a day, and pulling out-of-date product even more often.”
Those products sold fresh are checked nine times daily by staffers. “This strict attention to detail highlights just how strong the emphasis on fresh products is,” added Rogut.
Click on the image above to view a photo gallery of their visit highlights.