(Photograph courtesy of Lawson) 

In Japan, you can find senior citizens gathering for hours at a time, not at the local Elks Club, but at the local 7-Eleven, Lawson, or another of the country’s 50,000 convenience stores. In addition to buying ready-made food, they might be singing karaoke, participating in a calisthenics class, paying their bills, or simply shooting the breeze in one of their designated lounge areas.

Due to a combination of high life expectancy and low fertility rates, Japan has one of the highest proportions of citizens above age 60 of any country in the world. Numbering about 33 million, these elderly citizens currently make up more than 25 percent of Japan’s population, and according to Japan’s health and welfare ministry, they will account for 40 percent of the total by 2040. As Japan works to adapt to this growing demographic’s needs, private sector convenience stores, known as konbini, are teaming up with government agencies not only to cater to but also to care for elderly citizens.

According to Ming Li, spokesperson for the Japan-based Lawson convenience store chain, the stores “aim to become the ‘neighborhood stores’ where elderly customers without the means to travel long distances to shop, and busy customers with time constraints, can purchase food and other daily necessities conveniently.” Like its competitors, Lawson, the biggest convenience store franchise in Japan after 7-Eleven, has expanded the width of its aisles and lowered the height of its shelves to better accommodate customers with disabilities and allow for easier wheelchair access. It has also increased the font size on price tags for ease of reading. FamilyMart, Japan’s third-largest convenience store franchise, uses a home delivery system for senior citizens that specially formulates food for individuals with medical concerns such as diabetes or kidney disease. Lawson is introducing a similar service; 7-Eleven has been offering home deliveries since 2012.

Counter to the stereotype in the United States of big chains as impersonal intruders crowding out mom-and-pop shops, Japanese convenience store franchises are trusted as responsive community institutions, aiding not only in the tasks of daily life but also in local emergency disaster relief. When the deadly earthquake and tsunami struck off the coast of Tohoku in 2011, 2,000 stores were damaged, but 90 percent of them reopened within two weeks to aid in community rebuilding. When two earthquakes struck the Kumamoto prefecture in April 2016, leaving many residents without housing, gas, electricity, or running water, most convenience stores in the region—593, to be exact—sent emergency provisions, from diapers to onigiri (rice balls) to tea.

This “compassionate franchise” model isn’t unique to Japan, says Hiroyuki Murata, president of Murata Associates, a consultancy for businesses aiming to help Japan’s aging population, and a professor at Tohoku University. He adds, though, that Japanese franchises have pioneered the model—including through joint ventures abroad—proving its profitability and offering an important example to other countries in the region. “The age ratio in Japan is the highest in the world, but many Asian countries, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan, are aging rapidly,” Murata says. “I think convenience stores in such countries will catch up to Japan’s model as they age more.”

Since 2011, Lawson has opened stores in Indonesia and Thailand; in 2015, Japan-based FamilyMart discontinued store operations in the United States to focus on the Asia market, where it has spread to China, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Many of these stores also offer elder-friendly services.

Providing accessible services and goods isn’t the only way that konbini are engaging with elderly locals. They are also employing senior citizens—an important function, as more than 20 percent of Japan’s growing population of citizens over 65 still work. Lawson’s Ming Li says that out of his franchise’s 200,000 store crew members, more than 10,000 are over age 60.

Additionally, in 2015, the largest franchises—7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart, and Circle K-Sunkus (now merged with FamilyMart)—started holding training sessions for staff members to recognize and deal with individuals who exhibit signs of dementia and may not remember who or where they are. The training builds on the observation that convenience stores, which usually open earlier and close later than general supermarkets, have long been havens for people—especially women—who need to seek help, find refuge, or call the police.

Now, with many young people opting to do their shopping online, konbini are staying relevant by moving beyond convenience and into care.

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