Trends in Japan

Convenience Stores Offer Travel Reservation Services

MAY 23, 1996

Since their appearance two decades ago, convenience stores have transformed themselves from mini neighborhood supermarkets that stay open long hours to modern general stores that act as proxy collectors for public utility bills and offer an array of other services. Their most recent move has been to take on the role of travel agency.

A growing number of convenience stores in the Tokyo area have begun offering reservation and ticketing services using vending machines and special communications terminals directly linked with travel agencies' operation centers. Their goal is to capitalize on the vast popularity of travel among people of all ages by making ticket purchases and hotel reservations as easy as buying milk.

Discount Tours and Tickets
Touting special deals on one-day bus tours, hotel rates, and tickets for upcoming events, one major convenience store chain installed computer terminals in about 100 of its Tokyo shops in February. Hotel reservations and ticket purchases are made simply by touching the area on the screen where the item is displayed, and payment is completed by sliding a credit card through the appropriate slot in the machine. The terminals are scheduled to be hooked up to the host computer of a major travel agency in early fall so that customers can check on vacancies at hotels before making their reservations.

Travel bookings first became one of the services offered by convenience stores in the fall of 1994, when terminals with telephones were set up in 90 Kanagawa Prefecture stores. Customers pick up the phone and press the appropriate menu button on the screen to get connected with the travel agency operator, and they make tour reservations and purchase tickets for domestic flights and events over the phone. The tickets can be picked up at the cash register, where they are issued on the spot with a special machine.

Another chain has linked up with a travel agency in its corporate group to conduct a sales campaign using pamphlets advertising the service. And a chain affiliated with a major supermarket has produced a catalog listing discount tours developed jointly with a travel agency, reduced ryokan rates, and discount overnight hotel plans, which it distributes to 3,000 of its stores. Reservations for these are made over the phone with the travel agency's operation center.

A Perfect Match
Consumers have much to gain by making their purchases and reservations at convenience stores. They eliminate the trip to a travel agency or ticket center, can make all the arrangements at the same time they go shopping, and can do so early in the morning or late at night.

Travel agencies benefit because they get access to a new sales channel without any of the overhead costs. And convenience stores can enhance their range of services and count on income from the fixed commission. The setup works to everybody's advantage.

Nevertheless, the growing popularity of personal computer networks and the Internet may mean that in the not too distant future it will be possible to make all travel arrangements at home. The role of convenience stores as mini travel agencies may be short-lived.

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