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Box Lunches Drive Competition Among Convenience Stores (September 17, 2003)

Convenience store bento
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.

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 the health-conscious.

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 millet.

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.

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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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