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Japan's new dining trend: 'Grocerants' inside supermarkets

A bar offering wine and cheese inside Aeon Mall Zama is seen in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Mainichi)

The Japanese dining world is undergoing an interesting change as restaurants inside supermarkets, or "grocerants," are starting to gain popularity.

    At Aeon Mall Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, one can find a bar with wine and cheese on the menu, as well as a sushi counter, right next to conventional grocery aisles.

    Japanese supermarkets like Aeon Mall Zama have entered the grocerant market due to a decrease in Japan's desire for groceries -- resulting from population decline -- and fewer women cooking at home owing to career-related reasons.

    "The dining-out and home-meal replacement markets are expanding. Combined annual sales of the two are estimated at approximately 34 trillion yen -- which is about the same as the market for buying ingredients and cooking at home," explains Takashi Nishino, a senior manager at Aeon Mall in charge of deli products.

    Nishino adds, "We were already selling home-meal replacement items. However, in order to improve customer convenience, we thought we should try to smash the boundaries between such products and eating out."

    A counter serving sushi inside Aeon Mall Zama is seen in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Mainichi)

    The grocerants at Aeon Mall Zama offer 120 seats, and include chefs preparing sushi using fresh fish from the supermarket. Naturally, customers who enjoy the fish at the grocerant can easily buy some more to take home.

    Places such as Aeon Mall Zama have managed to combine supermarkets and restaurants into one.

    "Originally, supermarkets' main role was to sell ingredients that could be taken home and used to create meals. However, with more women working outside the house, fewer meals are being cooked in this way. In recent years, supermarkets have focused more on home-meal replacement products, but have had to extend their offerings to restaurants and public eating spaces," explains distribution analyst Hiroaki Watanabe.

    Moreover, supermarkets have been facing stiff competition from firms such as Amazon.com, that offer fresh grocery services online.

    "People's sense of value on time has changed as the number of people easily buying groceries online is increasing. It has become essential to create ways of attracting customers to supermarkets," Nishino says. Making the supermarket experience more enjoyable also represents a countermeasure against online retailers.

    Watanabe goes as far as to suggest that, "Supermarkets simply have no choice but to expand their 'in house grocerants' if they want to survive."

    However, at the same time, the conventional restaurant industry is not sitting back in silence. In some cases, restaurants have been trying to enter the "home-meal replacement" and "cooking from scratch" markets.

    The "Tsukada Nojo" izakaya chain for example, which was developed by Tsukada Nojo Plus, a subsidiary of the AP company, opened a grocerant inside the JR Shinagawa Station building in Tokyo in late March. The grocerant offers freshly cooked food using ingredients from its business partner Queen's Isetan, which has an outlet on the same floor.

    Meanwhile, bento chains, which specialize in home-meal replacement items, are setting up new restaurants, and conventional restaurants are expanding their take-out menus.

    The competition between companies that offer eat-in meals, dishes to take home, and ingredients for making meals from scratch is heating up as Japan's overall appetite for conventional supermarket groceries continues to decrease.

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