More convenience stores adopting restaurant functions, and vice versa

January 19th, 2015 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Drink 'em if you got 'em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Drink ’em if you got ’em: Counter area in a new Family Mart being built in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture

Ministop, the fifth largest convenience store chain in Japan with 2,200 outlets nationwide, was the first of its ilk to provide counters, tables and chairs for patrons who preferred to consume their purchases on the premises. Because of relatively lax tax laws in Japan, they could do it without having to charge more. This service was originally devised as a gimmick that would differentiate Ministop from other chains, and for years no other CS chain felt that it needed to do the same thing.

Last summer, Ministop, which belongs to the Aeon retail conglomerate, expanded on this idea with an offshoot called Cisca, an abbreviation for “city small cafe.” It’s basically a more attractively appointed convenient store centered around the sit-down space. So far, only one Cisca has opened, in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and according to Asahi Shimbun the target is women who work in the area. The selection is more limited than what you would find in a regular Ministop, with the focus on high quality deli items and beverages, including fresh coffee and alcoholic drinks.

The “eating corner” seats only 17, but what really distinguishes Cisca from other Ministops is that eating-in is encouraged with free use of utensils. You can buy a bottle of wine for ¥700, for instance, and drink it right there, because they will provide you with wine glasses. Each seat also has its own electrical outlet. According to Ministop’s publicity department, since the store opened it’s been almost continually full.

Cisca is part of a trend taking place in both the retail and restaurant trades toward a more practical and less expensive view of dining out. Half of the new outlets opened by CS giant Family Mart since the beginning of 2013 also have sit-down counters and tables.

The fourth largest chain, Sankusu/Circle K, says it will also start providing such services this year in many of its stores. Though there is some concern that the extra cost will not be made back — such spaces necessitate larger overall floor area — and that the eat-in function will encourage loitering, it represents a bandwagon phenomenon that everyone in the business is jumping on in one way or another.

By the same token, chain restaurants, especially so-called family restaurants, are selling cheaper items in smaller amounts, including alcohol. Saizeria and Gusto, in particular, are putting more effort into alcohol sales, a trend called choi-nomi, which means “tipple.” The idea is that people will order beer or wine or sake in such places if the price is low enough.

In December, Gusto started offering glasses of wine for as low as ¥99. The gyudon (beef bowl) chain Yoshinoya has also expanded its alcohol selection at certain outlets in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. This “Yoshinomi” service is a direct challenge to traditional drinking establishments (izakaya), offering inexpensive drinks along with otsumami, meaning small dishes that normally accompany alcohol.

According to Asahi, the service has proved to be “instantly popular.” The fast food tempura chain, Tenya, has also fortified its low-priced alcohol selection at some of its outlets and offers otsumami at only ¥100 per dish. Sales have increased by 7 percent.

That may not sound like much of an increase, but according to the Japan Food Service Association, the traditional izakaya market peaked in 1992 at ¥1.46 trillion. Since 2010, however, annual revenues have leveled out to about ¥1 trillion. What this change seems to indicate is not that people don’t want to eat and drink out any more, but that they don’t see the point in spending a lot of money to do so.

The choi-nomi movement is more about being casual, as is the idea of eating in a convenience store. Such an approach has always been general in Japan, as evidenced by the ubiquity of street stalls and the loose attitude toward drinking alcohol in public places, but now more businesses are adapting their methodologies to a consumer base that is both less serious about eating out and more serious about saving money.

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One Response

  1. This is relatively established practice in Korea (at least in the form of some plastic chairs and and maybe a table out front) and it always struck me as a good idea. Sometimes it’s annoying to have to sift through a crowd of spitting, mildly drunk, smoking old men but for the most part it’s just convenient.

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