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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Loss Battles and Hidden Costs

While part-time workers may see the opportunities to glean store loss as a bonus to low hourly wages, for owners like the ishiguro and aoki families, eating loss while on the job and bringing it home to feed the family can amount to more of a financial necessity. Since the latter half of the 1990s, the average daily sales figures of convenience stores have steadily declined as more stores have opened and competition from other parts of the retail sector, like supermarkets and drugstores, have increased. According to takeuchi Minoru, an industry analyst, only a third of all Japanese convenience stores are turning a significant profit. The remaining stores are either in the red or just getting by. The work hours and eating habits of store owners tend to bear out these divisions. Unable to raise profits, store owners forsake hiring additional staff and assume the burden of more shifts, often the evening and late-night shifts because those are the positions that are most expensive to fill. Longer shifts at their stores increase opportunities for owners to consume unsold food. Certainly eating unsold food is not a recent phenomenon in the world of smallscale retail. For centuries, greengrocers, fishmongers, and butchers have engaged in the practice of consuming their merchandise when the need arose. But mass-produced convenience store foods tend to be high in sugar and salt. In addition, what an owner consumes is limited to what has not sold. While stores stock salads, fruit, and even tofu, owners may forgo the hassle and added expense of purchasing healthier foods in favor of simply taking the food they have already been forced to buy before it goes bad.

Suggestive of the potential negative impact that convenience store food, work, and lifestyles can have on the physical condition of store owners, at least five of the twelve owners with whom i maintained regular contact in my study reported health problems during the course of their store contracts. Three owners reported struggling with diabetes, one suffered a mental breakdown, and another had stomach ulcers. All were forced to take substantial time off of work in order to rest. They also had to alter their diets. Wakamatsu is a case in point. Upon returning to work following a brief stint in the hospital to bring his diabetes under control, wakamatsu was under strict orders from his doctor not to eat any convenience store food. Each day he brought with him to work a thermos of tea and an obentō prepared for him at home. But it wasn't long before wakamatsu began to slip back into his old habits. One evening, about a month after his return, i came into the store's back room to pick up the cleaning supplies. I found him seated at his desk and staring at the store's Computer screen while snacking on a package of deep-fried chicken nuggets that i had pulled from the shelves a short time earlier. He looked up to see who was there, grinned somewhat guiltily, and silently offered me what was left.

Food remains central to the convenience store's dual affect—that of refining standards while at the same time creating differentiation. Customers expect to find a standard fare of edible options when they enter these establishments. Yet be it in the form of rice balls or Christmas cakes, prepared foods are also the flavorful field on which chains seek to differentiate themselves from their competition and encourage “healthy” competition among members of the same chain (whitelaw 2006, 2008). Convenience store food contributes to what anthropologist richard wilk terms the “structure of common difference” (1995, 111). The stores and the food they provide organize diversity rather than simply replicate uniformity (119).

As this chapter illustrates, however, convenience store food should be followed further than the cash register to understand how this cultural form functions to differentiate the practices of owners and franchise chains within what is typically taken to be a highly uniform, undifferentiated retail system. Furthermore, food, particularly unsold food, is a metonym for the less visible dimensions of global consumer culture and convenience. The growing international prominence of Japan's convenience stores and their success on new soil has not altered the fact that in Japan, franchisees and workers are burdened with maintaining these twenty-four-hour hubs of sustenance and relief. For some owners, the expansion of chains overseas and growth in company profits only deepens uncertainties and anxiety about the future of the business they run.

In the era of the convenience store's (second) overseas expansion, unsold food has become a catalyst for action, both individual and collective. In 2005, a “food fight” broke out when a 7-eleven franchisee filed a suit against the company for imposing royalty fees on unsold food product. 7-eleven lost the case but appealed to the tokyo High Court, where the lower court's decision was overturned. In 2009, the issue flared up again. This time 7-eleven, the largest chain in Japan, was accused of violating the anti-monopoly laws by pressuring its franchisees not to discount and sell food close to its consume-by date. In open challenge to 7-eleven's rules that food should not be sold at a discount, owners of a handful of stores banded together and discounted food that was nearing its expiration date. The court upheld the owners' challenge to 7-eleven, and the company announced that it would create a compensation system for owners (takeuchi 2009). This band of owners also founded a fledgling Union of owners to push for further reforms to the practices that contributed to unnecessary food waste. In a report published by researchers at Chiba University (anzai et al. 2009), a study of discounting food practices at Kanto area convenience stores showed that food loss was reduced by 50–80 percent with no or little impact to overall store sales. A 7-eleven owner who started using time sale reductions in 2009 revealed that there was a 5 percent reduction in store sales compared with the month before price reductions began, but the store's overall profits increased by 30 percent because food was sold. The same owner said that store staff, particular female part-time workers, were pleased with the new discounting practices because they felt guilty having to throw food away (takada and Masumitsu 2009, 1).

Concerns about food waste have spurred particular chains to experiment with other ways to reduce waste. Using information technologies and exclusive contracts, companies have reduced inefficiencies in ordering, delivery, and merchandise control (ishikawa and nejo 1998; Kawabe 2004). Chains have also improved production processes and packaging so that prepared foods have a longer shelf life. Since the early 2000s, corporations have experimented with recycling waste food. In one project carried out by Lawson, Japan's second-largest convenience store chain, unsold food from a group of stores in the yokohama area was collected and given to a nongovernmental organization (nGO) to be “remade” into food for a soup kitchen. In another project by the same chain, unsold obentō and rice balls were collected and brought to a processing center where the food was separated from the plastic packaging and transformed into fertilizer and pig feed. Such initiatives, however, are still being piloted, and questions remain about the economic feasibility of carrying them out on a large scale.

Chain-led food waste management programs and nascent owner unions around the discounting of food are two forms that differentiation has taken, but perhaps the more meaningful differentiation that this study found was in the ways that individual owners dealt with unsold food in their own stores. When i followed expired rice balls and boxed lunches, the contours of changing lifestyles came into focus—not just consumer lifestyles, but also the working lives of small shop owner families who have been the bulwark of neighborhood politics and community identity in the postwar era. Within the policies and practices of the convenience store, franchisees still struggle as small proprietors seeking to sell products in an ever-changing retail landscape. Although all the owners may wear the same uniform, seasoned merchants with backgrounds in small business tended to be more adept at reinterpreting And informalizing the convenience stores' globalizing standards and seemingly rigid contractual agreements. People like wakamatsu, with his appetite for distributing free food, and the aoki couple, who reached into their recipe book to turn store losses into opportunities to personalize their workplace and cultivate loyalty, reveal that the convenience stores can be made, in small ways, more palatable. In the case of former white-collar, salaried employees, like the ishiguro family, who enter a store contract without much prior knowledge, experience, or local support, the transition tends to be harsher. The new work regime of a twenty-four-hour franchise can quickly sour a couple's dream of “low-risk” independent store ownership. For such families, unsold food indexes just how sharp a turn their lives have taken.

By selling the first plastic-wrapped rice balls, Japan's small shop owners immeasurably contributed to localizing the convenience store franchise within Japan's neighborhoods. They have also played an important role in turning this reinvented general store into a new global template. One of the ways that Japanese industry leaders and government officials packaged the convenience store model was as a way to help struggling shopkeepers maintain neighborhood family businesses for the next generation. In 2013, the convenience store business model's “best-before” date seems to have passed, particularly for local merchant families. Shortly after i completed my fieldwork at Daily, wakamatsu's family decided not to renew their franchise contract and turned over the keys of the operation to the chain headquarters. Wakamatsu's older brother, the actual owner of the franchise contract, threw a party at his “other business”—a restaurant—to thank Daily's staff for its dedication and service. While plates of steaming spaghetti, salad, and freshly baked bread were being delivered to the long table that seated some twenty-five staff and former parttime workers, the owner made a short speech. He commended his younger brother and wife for their diligence in running Daily and praised the workers for their efforts to successfully close the store. He also noted his brother's health condition and the intense competition from other chains. “a convenience store cannot survive unless the people who run it do,” he concluded, raising his glass for a toast. “that is all i want to say. Kampai (cheers).”

Notes

A 2004–2005 Fulbright Doctoral Dissertation research Fellowship supported the initial research for this chapter. A 2009–2011 young researchers start-Up Grant from the Japan Ministry of education, Culture, sports, science, and technology (MeXt) contributed to follow-up research. I would also like to thank Jordan Sand, satsuki Kawano, Glenda roberts, and susan Long for their helpful comments and suggestions at critical stages of the drafting process.

1. Daily is one of three convenience stores where i conducted participant observation as a clerk between 2004 and 2005. In accordance with practices common to anthropology, the names of the actual individuals have been altered to protect informant identities. In addition, certain identifiable details of stores have been altered for the same reason.

2. At the time that this research was conducted the exchange rate was approximately

¥90 to $1.

3. In follow-up research conducted in 2012, the same area had only half the number of stores, upgrading the district in industry lingo from a “konbini hell” to a “konbini village” (konbini mura). Daily was among the half-dozen convenience stores which had gone out of business or moved to a different location.

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