If you spend any time walking around in Japan, you will notice that there is a convenience store on what may seem to be every corner. Sometimes, especially in larger cities, that is probably quite accurate. The convenience store or “conbini” has become as much a part of everyday life in Japan as commuting on the train or seeing someone walking their pet Shiba Inu. You can get a large variety of products at convenience stores. A lot of the things available in conbinis are available in convenience stores in other countries: drinks, snacks, basic toiletries, beauty products, groceries, cigarettes, alcohol, batteries, paper towels, magazines, and a lot more. And in Japan, there are even emergency professional supplies like undershirts, ties, and socks for when you stay up all night with your colleagues singing karaoke and need some fresh clothes before returning to work. Whether you need to grab a quick breakfast before work, grab a quick dinner after a long day, stock up on alcohol and snacks for a hanami party, or even make some copies while paying your utility bills, at some point, we all end up inside a convenience store. And since the majority of them are open 24 hours, they often become lifesavers when you desperately need something and have nowhere else to go.
What are the Biggest Convenience Stores in Japan?
Although there are dozens of different convenience store chains in Japan, the three main ones that you will see everywhere are Lawson, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart.
Lawson can easily be identified by their white and blue logo with the old milk jug. Their main stores have all the normal basic essentials but they also have a few other offshoot chains with a different focus or inventory. As the above picture indicates, Lawson also has a chain of “Natural Lawson” stores that have a focus on a more healthy lifestyle. The products in Natural Lawson are supposed to be made with natural ingredients. Here you will not find as many of the GMO or heavily processed foods. There are more options for produce, more low-calorie and small prepared lunch items, and even some freshly baked treats from their delicatessens. This is a great option if you are trying to watch what types of food you eat but also on a budget. You can still find a lot of your everyday non-food items as well because, after all, it is still a Lawson. Another Lawson brand chain is “Lawson 100” which has a green sign instead. Like many other 100 yen shops, the items offered at these stores are offered at 100 yen (plus consumption tax), but this still includes small prepared meals and fresh produce. These stores tend to be found in more residential areas.
7-Eleven is an American company that was able to find a significant foothold in the Japanese market and is now one of the top 3 major convenience stores in Japan. 7-Elevens always make me smile because they usually play really strange cover versions of American pop songs that will take you a minute or two to recognize. They also feature the “Seven Cafe” where you can get coffee and other hot drinks as well as donuts and sweets for a reasonable price.
Family Mart is often referred to as “Famima” in Japanese and is home to the famous “FamiChiki” fried chicken to-go. You can easily spot a Family Mart with their bright signs and simple blue and green logo. Their line of unique branded products is called the “Family Mart Collection”. They also have a good selection of hot ready-to-eat foods like steamed buns, karaage, and hash browns (my favorite).
Other common convenience store chains include New Days, Daily Yamazaki, Sunkus (now part of Family Mart), and Ministop as well as some other less common ones depending on where you live. Personally, I also spend a lot of time shopping at New Days because of how common they are in train stations, and I frequently need to grab a quick onigiri or milk tea to get me through the day.
What are the Differences Between Big Convenience Stores?
At a cursory glance, the quick answer for a lot of people will be that there is not a difference. They all tend to have similar layouts and offer a majority of the same types and brands of products at basically the same prices. But that is an answer that will definitely frustrate the individual companies. There is fierce competition between all convenience store chains and especially between those big 3 that I mentioned. That is why they are always trying to come up with new original products and services that will set them apart from the competition. However, when one of them does do something to gain an edge it will be swiftly copied by the others. They also offer a lot of the same products but have their own branded names for them. Family Mart has marketing everywhere for their previously mentioned “FamiChiki” but you can get a breaded fried chicken breast at the other stores as well just with a different name, and in my experience, they all taste pretty good.
Now you know that no matter which convenience store you choose you cannot go wrong. Even if one store does not have your favorite thing they will definitely have something that is pretty close. What is your favorite conbini chain and why?
Extra Services Offered in Conbinis in Japan
There are many services offered by convenience stores in Japan that may not be common in other countries. Thanks to all of these various services offered by conbinis, I probably visit convenience stores about 10 times more often in Japan than I used to in the United States.
For me, this is one of the most convenient services that convenience stores offer. I pay all of my bills at conbinis. When I first moved to Japan, I had to get used to this different system for paying my bills. In the United States, I was used to paying the utility companies directly either by mail or by paying online. As futuristic as Japan often seems, there are many instances where Japan is a little bit behind technologically (they still use fax machines!). An example of this I’ve found is a lack of well-designed, easy to use websites for public services. Or, if they do have online payment systems set up, they quite often do not have them available in English, which is understandable. However, you can go to any convenience store, hand them your bill, press the big “OK” button, and pay that water or electric bill quickly and easily. It is such a common occurrence that the staff always know what to do and almost no Japanese is required.
I do not own a printer, which is good because printers are one of the most consistently frustrating pieces of technology on the planet. However, sometimes you just have to print something, and at the convenience store, you can! Whether it is a high-quality picture, official documents that you need to sign (common for us foreigners), or a map for directions when you do not have battery life on your phone, the conbini is the place to go. It is like having a FedEx or Kinkos everywhere. The newer machines also have instructions available in multiple languages including English, and if they do not, the staff is always happy to help. The cost is also pretty inexpensive at around 10 yen for simple black and white pages and around 50 yen for color copies.
Have you ever ordered something online? Of course, you have. Me too. But what do you do when the package has to be delivered during the day and you are at work? A lot of people do not have a safe place that packages can be delivered in their absence that is safe from theft, weather, or other damage. Well, in Japan, you can have almost any package delivered to your nearest convenience store. If you are shopping through a Japanese website they will usually have an option that you can click for your parcel to be delivered to and kept at a convenience store of your choosing (an additional fee may apply). And since convenience stores are almost always open you can pick up your item whatever time is good for you! This definitely helps avoid the stress of trying to make sure you are home in a 3-hour delivery window while sitting and waiting.
Have you ever needed to buy something but realized that you do not have any cash and they do not accept credit or debit cards? This happens to me all the time. Japan is still a largely cash-based society, and there are a lot of stores and services that are cash only. The convenience store bill pay service, for example, is usually cash only. If you have an account with one of the larger banks in Japan then you can sometimes find an ATM with your bank. However, if you cannot, then the convenience stores have you covered. The ATMs at convenience stores accept almost every type of card. They even accept some kinds of international cards. Some transaction fees or international fees may apply but they tend to be pretty low. So, if you find yourself stuck with no cash, get to your nearest conbini and you will be alright.
This is surprisingly one of my favorite features of convenience stores in Japan. If you have spent any time touring around or living in Japan then you know how hard it is to find a trash can when you need one. There is a very specific reason that Japan does not have many trash cans (you can look it up online later if you are curious), so when you inevitably end up with trash that you need to throw away (as we all do) you have to hang onto it until you either get home or find somewhere to get rid of it. Some parks, buildings, or certain train stations are good about having trash cans but they are very inconsistent. My main plan is always to keep an eye out for convenience store trash cans. Sometimes I will end up with a bag full of trash collected from my whole day and then I will dump it all out at the first conbini I see. They are usually outside the store so you do not even have to go inside.
It may not seem like much now that free wi-fi is available in a lot of places, but I have often found myself wandering part of Japan and lost with a phone that only works with wi-fi or has no data. In these cases, you can always trust the main convenience stores to help you out. Their wi-fi is not unlimited so I would not recommend trying to sit in a conbini for hours to get some work done like at a coffee shop. But they do offer free wi-fi for various lengths and different numbers of sessions per day which can be the difference between wandering aimlessly for another hour and getting back on the right path.
What is your favorite special service that you can get at Japanese convenience stores?
The population of Japan is about 125 million people, and Japan now has more than 50,000 convenience stores nationwide. That means that there is roughly 1 convenience store for every 2,500 people. So, no matter where you live in Japan, it is a safe bet that your nearest conbini is right around the corner, maybe even closer.