Convenience stores in Japan serve up seasonal drinkable sweets to increase profits

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An employee prepares a smoothie at a Lawson in Ota Ward, Tokyo.

Major convenience store operators have started focusing more on smoothies and other frozen drinks, referring to them as “drinkable sweets,” as part of efforts to develop new business opportunities.

In autumn, soft drink and ice cream sales usually drop, however, smoothies, which allow people to easily consume fruits and vegetables, have grown popular. With the sales season of such products reaching its peak, convenience store operators have exercised their ingenuity by releasing distinctive products.

In September, Lawson, Inc. began selling smoothies, priced at ¥350 to ¥480, including tax, at five of its stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area. There are seven flavors, including banana espresso, that are all prepared by Lawson employees. After receiving an order, employees will slice fruits, blend the drinks and add whipped cream, all in the store’s kitchen. The company plans to increase the number of stores offering such products to 500 by fiscal 2025.

Last year, Seven-Eleven Japan Co. released Seven Cafe smoothies at certain stores in Tokyo, Chiba Prefecture and other areas. Customers purchase a plastic cup — containing frozen fruits and vegetables — that is then placed into a machine that mixes everything together to make a smoothie. There are now about 1,650 stores that sell such drinks.

Smoothies have been popular overseas for many years. In Japan, the drinks have become more widely available since the 2010s, especially at cafes and smoothie shops.

Convenience stores have already been using coffee machines placed near the registers and in-house kitchens to offer freshly brewed coffee, so they are taking advantage of the space to offer freshly made smoothies.

Mixing it up

In addition to smoothies, a wide variety of frozen drinks have also hit the shelves.

In September, FamilyMart Co. added a new frappe flavor, which is made using a type of Beniharuka sweet potato, to its lineup. Customers place the cup into a machine, which pours milk over the crushed ice and ice cream, located near the register.

Last year, Ministop Co. launched a line of Gurukuru drinks, which are a mixture of crushed ice, soft-serve ice cream, crushed fruits and other ingredients. This year, the company added a strawberry milk flavor and a chocolate orange flavor, both of which include fresh fruits.

“If convenience store operators, which have the ability to purchase high-quality ingredients, launch products that look stylish and are attractive, such products could become new areas for growth for the businesses,” analyst of the retail industry Hiroaki Watanabe said.

Seasonal products

As consumers visit convenience stores more frequently than they do department stores and shopping malls, convenience store operators have strong concerns that customers would “get bored” if stores only sold products that are available all year round, a person familiar with the industry said.

Convenience store sales are greatly affected by the shop’s ability to attract customers through seasonal products and events.

In summer, convenience store operators offer a full lineup of soft drinks and ice cream products, while in winter, they offer more oden hot pots near the register, as well as place more focus on steamed meat bun sales.

In September, FamilyMart started selling new black pork steamed buns at ¥198 and sold 2 million buns in one month.

Convenience store operators have also expanded their lineups of Christmas cakes and osechi meals, the assortment of traditional dishes during the New Year holidays, in order to compete with department stores and other retailers for preorders.

Previously, a large amount of ehomaki rolled sushi, which is served around setsubun on Feb. 3, had to be thrown out due to overproduction. It was highlighted as a problem as it created a lot of food waste. As a result, convenience store operators were forced to take such steps as introducing a preorder system. Operators have been urged to reduce food loss through efficient procurement.