Japan convenience stores burgeoning in China

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Customers queue on the opening day of a Seven-Eleven convenience store in Luoyang, Henan Province, China, earlier this month.

BEIJING — Japan’s three major convenience store operators are opening more and more outlets in China.

As of February 2022, there were about 11,000 such shops, with the figure more than doubling in the past five years.

With the saturation of Japan’s domestic market, the operators are leveraging their Japan-wrought know-how to increase revenues in China, which, with a population of 1.4 billion, represents a huge market.

Earlier this month, the first Seven-Eleven store opened in Luoyang, an inland city in China’s Henan Province. To mark the launch, the store prepared 5,000 goody bags and held a ceremony — including a dance performance — that was attended by local government officials. About 3,000 people visited the store on the day.

“Many shops are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but convenience stores remain open,” said a 35-year-old university teacher who spent 160 yuan (about ¥3,200) at the shop. “Seven-Eleven’s pricing is reasonable it has a good selection of purchase-inducing products.”

The Luoyang store is open 24 hours a day and sells many Japanese goods. A bottle of skin lotion costs 95 yuan (about ¥1,900) — nearly three times the price in Japan — while a bottle of Chinese mineral water goes for 2 yuan, the same as a nearby Chinese convenience store. Prices have been set with the aim of attracting a wide range of customers.

The store is run by a Chinese company under license from Seven-Eleven Japan Co. In the next few years, the Japanese operator plans to open about 30 more stores in Luoyang, which has a population of approximately 7 million — comparable to that of Saitama Prefecture.

As of the end of 2021, Seven-Eleven had about 4,000 stores in China, including those operated under license. Lawson Inc., meanwhile, had about 4,500 stores in China as of the end of February this year, but this number had grown to over 5,000 as of July. The firm has plans to increase this number to 10,000 in fiscal 2025. For its part, FamilyMart Co. had about 2,800 stores as of the end of February.

According to the China Chain Store & Franchise Association, there were 163,000 convenience stores in China as of 2021, representing a rise of more than 70% from five years earlier. Chinese companies, such as Easy Joy (28,000 outlets) and Meiyijia Convenience Store Co. (26,000 outlets) top the list, while Lawson, the largest Japanese-owned convenience store chain in China, is sixth.

China has a per-store population of 7,030, some three times more than Japan. Japanese operators reportedly believe that the Chinese market can accommodate many more new outlets.

At their Chinese stores, the Japanese operators utilize business models developed in Japan. Seven-Eleven, for example, sells such own-brand products as bento lunch boxes, onigiri rice balls and deli goods in Beijing, Tianjin and Chengdu, all of which have company-operated stores.

However, freshness is a key issue for such products. In Japan, stores generally receive several deliveries each day. But in China, deliveries are usually only made once a day due to restrictions within the logistics network. In many respects, Japanese business methods do not work well in China, and differentiating their stores from Chinese counterparts also is an issue for Japanese operators.