Box Lunches Drive Competition Among Convenience Stores (September 17, 2003)
There are many different kinds of places to eat out in
Japan, including trendy restaurants, fast-food outlets, and cafes. In recent years,
though, the number of people buying takeout lunches is increasing. Especially
popular are box lunches (known as bento), and convenience
stores are making new efforts to increase their share of this market, such as
by paying close attention to nutritional value, introducing bento
that contain no chemical preservatives, being particular about the ingredients
used, and improving variety. By taking these steps, convenience stores hope to
expand the customer base for their bento.
|Convenience store bento
New Techniques for Preserving Freshness and Taste
Last year three major convenience-store chains - Sunkus, Ministop, and Three F - introduced the concept of the chilled bento.
While bento are typically stored at about 16 degrees
Celsius (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), chilled bento
are stored at a temperature range of 3 to 8 degrees Celsius (37 to 46 degrees
Fahrenheit). Refrigerated display cases in the stores allow the box lunches to
be kept at this temperature right up until the time of sale. This prevents any
bacteria from multiplying and keeps the ingredients fresh without the use of preservatives,
dramatically improving the flavor. Last September, Ministop used this refrigeration
technique to introduce three chilled bento, including
Japanese-style beef-and-potato stew, at its stores in the Tokyo area. The new
meals sell for ¥380 ($3.17 at ¥120 to the dollar). Beginning this fall
the chain plans to offer the new bento at all of its
approximately 1,400 stores.
This past May, Sunkus began offering a type of bento
in which the items meant to be eaten hot (such as rice and fish) and those meant
to be eaten cold (such as salad and pickles) are placed in different containers
to make it easy for the customer to heat up only the appropriate foods. Customers
wishing to heat the meal at home simply remove the cold-dish containers before
popping the bento into their microwave oven. Special
microwave-shielding cases can be placed over the cold items for people who want
their bento microwaved at the store.
In the past, convenience stores have drawn their customer base primarily from
students and young people in their twenties and thirties who live alone. But now
that the chains have begun offering high-end bento
that cater to the health-conscious and those who care about quality ingredients,
they have also begun to bring in men and women in their forties and fifties. After
seeing its base of customers in their fifties grow from 30% of the total in 1990
to 39% in 2002, the 7-Eleven
chain stopped using preservatives and artificial colors in its bento
and sandwiches and introduced a brown-rice bento for
Meanwhile, FamilyMart has focused on flavor, with an emphasis on fish dishes. The traditional Japanese-style
bento it introduced in May, called Irodorizen (which means "assortment"),
is slightly more expensive than average, selling for ¥780 ($6.50). In producing
this meal, the creators did research on bento sold
in the basement gourmet sections of renowned department
stores and at train stations. Though it may cost more than other fare typical of convenience stores,
a comparable bento would sell for ¥1,000 ($8.33)
at a department store. FamilyMart has also introduced high-class onigiri
(rice balls) made only with premium rice, such as Koshihikari produced in Uonuma, Niigata
Prefecture. These sell for a modest ¥200 ($1.67).
Not to be outdone in the bento
wars, Ministop is selling a bento called Gokokumai
Gohan ("five-grain"), which features such healthful ingredients as Chinese
herbal extracts and costs ¥480 ($4.00). The "five grains" are wheat,
rice, beans, awa millet, and kibi
A Flagship Product
The reason convenience stores are channeling so much effort into bento
is because boxed meals and other rice-based foods are a major seller, accounting
for 20% to 30% of the chains' total sales and over 30% of their gross profits.
At one point, convenience stores were feeling the heat of the restaurant industry's
price wars, typified by the "weekday half-price" campaign at McDonald's.
In December 2000, 7-Eleven, which sells nearly one billion onigiri
each year, reduced to ¥100 ($0.83) the price of its onigiri
that had sold for ¥130 ($1.08). Although both sales and profits rose immediately
after the price cuts, sales volume eventually dropped to its pre-discount level.
This experience led the convenience-store chains to conclude that their customers
are looking not so much for price as for convenience and product quality. This
led them to shift the focus of competition to such things as freshness and healthfulness.
Convenience stores have made life easier for Japanese people in a number of ways,
and when customers step inside, the bento and onigiri
section, with its ample selection of fresh, tasty, healthful items, is one of
the first things they see. It seems only appropriate that convenience stores would
develop high-quality food for takeout.
Related Web Sites
Sunkus (Japanese only)
Ministop (Japanese only)
Three F (Japanese only)
"train stations" in Nipponia
Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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