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85% of Japanese convenience store owners work 6-day weeks: survey

A 7-Eleven store is seen at JR Osaka Station in this March 24, 2017 file photo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The reality of difficult conditions for workers at convenience stores across Japan, and softening attitudes toward late night opening hours among the general population, have been revealed in the results of surveys by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced on Nov. 5.

According to the findings, some 29% of convenience store owners work their shop floors for over 12 hours a day, and around 85% of them said that they only get a day or less time to rest each week.

On the subject of late-night opening hours, customers who outright said they felt doing business during the small hours was unnecessary exceeded those who said it was needed, demonstrating a widening gap between the convenience store industry business model and the mood of the times.

A survey aimed at convenience store businesses was carried out in August, targeting 6,227 owners across the country with 3,645 responding. Some of the surveys were also conducted as face-to-face interviews. A survey of customers was aimed at getting answers from 10,000 people through an internet questionnaire in July. Another 944 people were interviewed outside 10 convenience stores in the country and the results were announced at a meeting of a panel of experts on Nov. 5.

In the survey of working hours by store owners, some 50% reported that they toiled between six and 12 hours a day. Another 29% said they worked 12 hours or more, and 14% reported working fewer than six hours. Among other results, 56% of store owner family members surveyed said they worked at least 12 hours a day for their shops. The results showed that the precipitous rise in hiring costs caused by a shortage of available labor is forcing store owners and their relatives into working longer periods of time.

Reflecting on the extent to which the convenience store industry's around-the-clock business culture has come into question, some 14.8% of customers surveyed said they think it is not necessary for the shops to be open late at night. Among the reasons given for their answers, they cited a lack of customers, and that they were happy to buy items they need ahead of time. Another 35.2% of respondents said the decision to work late should be left up to individual stores, indicating that around half of customers surveyed were in favor of shorter working hours.

However, 9.1% of customers said they should be open at all times, for reasons including that the shops can be relied on in emergencies. Another 40.8% cited crime prevention and other reasons to say that depending on the character of the area a shop is located in, it may be necessary for a convenience store to be open all hours.

Major convenience store operators dispatch support workers from head office in instances where store owners need to attend events relating to celebrations or bereavements, or if they suddenly fall ill. As part of support plans, self-service cash registers are also being introduced to try to reduce the labor burden on store owners.

But interviews from the survey showed discontent among owners toward head office, with some reporting that although they fill all the work shifts, they don't get advice on how to improve profitability, and others claiming that the administrative branch is solely interested in increasing sales and its number of stores.

There did appear to be many people who voiced their positive expectations for the introduction of information technology to services, but others mentioned that they didn't get a sense that it would reduce labor because machines can't sell tobacco products or process payments for bills, taxes and other procedures.

At the meeting on Nov. 5, members of the panel repeatedly highlighted that the current state of convenience stores does not reflect the times. Some also said that they think industry guidelines should be introduced in relation to the contracts that convenience store operators draw up with franchise stores. The panel intends to publish a report on its findings around the start of 2020.

(Japanese original by Kenji Wada, Business News Department)

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