Japan's convenience stores tap technology to beat labour shortage

Convenience stores such as FamilyMart in Japan are grappling with the tightest labour market in more than 40 years and the 24-hour format such stores adopt. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese convenience store chain FamilyMart said on Tuesday (April 2) that it was partnering Panasonic to incorporate a range of labour-saving technologies into its 24-hour stores which have struggled with a shrinking workforce.

Convenience stores in Japan are grappling with the tightest labour market in more than 40 years. Amid complaints from franchise owners, 24-hour industry leader 7-Eleven recently agreed to test shorter hours at 10 of its 20,700 stores.

"We are faced with a labour shortage, and the issue of 24-hour operations. There is no time to waste," FamilyMart president Takashi Sawada told reporters at the opening of the first store using Panasonic technology in Kanagawa, south-west of Tokyo.

The convenience store arm of retail group FamilyMart UNY Holdings said the changes will include advanced sensors and artificial intelligence to help stores re-stock more efficiently, as well as self check-out, digital displays and price tags.

The companies did not announce terms of the deal, saying the scale of their partnership depended on whether the initial steps prove successful.

Rival Lawson has also teamed up with Panasonic for self check-out services but such features - now common in other countries - have been slow to take off amid worries about dissatisfying customers accustomed to high levels of service.

The ubiquitous stores began expanding in the 1970s as their 24-hour format proved a perfect match with the country's dense population and long working hours. They have become an essential part of modern Japan, offering everything from packaged "bento" lunches to ATM services.

Analysts have said the market may be nearing saturation, with the total number of stores reaching roughly 58,000 last year, given the country's decreasing population.

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