Back to Contents of Issue: May 2001

Are the e-com kiosks in convenience stores popular? Nope, and if they were, it'd be damn inconvenient.

by Max Everingham

Above: The 7Navi, photographed on a digital camera and printed out form the same terminal. And a printout of a favorite "telent." All very convenient, but ...
CONVENIENCE STORES IN JAPAN are quite different from the examples most of us are accustomed to back home. Here, they are paragons of ease and simplicity, to be found on just about every street with their clean, bright interiors, well-stocked shelves, and friendly, welcoming staff, who yell their gratitude at you with the force of a small hurricane -- even if you don't buy anything. A long cry from the somewhat dingy, down-market cousins overseas, the Family Marts, 7-Elevens, Lawsons, and Mini-stops of Japan make dropping into the corner store for a few things almost a pleasurable experience. They have everything: from drinks to diapers, magazines to mozzarella, tobacco to takkyubin -- you can even pay your gas bill or photocopy a few important documents before catching the train to work. Could it be any easier?

Well, yes, it could, according to 7-Eleven and Lawson operators. What we really need, they say, is multimedia terminals in every store, allowing us to make in a snap the kind of purchases that we only formerly associated with shopping malls, waiting in line, and desperate, stress-inducing searches for a parking space. Technology, once again, will make our lives easier, and convenience stores will become -- incredibly -- even more convenient. At least that's the plan.

Boasting over 8,200 stores nationwide, which is more than in any other country in the world, 7-Eleven has an excellent foundation for introducing a new shopping concept to the masses. And that concept is called 7Navi ( If machines were athletes, 7Navi would be the Olympic champion in the decathlon. A terminal to end all terminals, the housing incorporates a color touch-screen as the main customer interface, a printer, digital camera, scanner, digital telephone line (to contact customer service), a high-speed MiniDisc drive, connection bays for keitai, PHS, CompactFlash, and SmartMedia cards, and is linked via ground-to-satellite leased lines to update content. Each machine is also hooked up to an internal LAN in the store.

What all this circuitry means is that a customer could theoretically stand in front of the terminal and, in a single session, book a vacation (flight, hotel, tours), buy a digital camera or CD player, and buy and download the latest new hit music to a MiniDisc. Then, when they got back from the vacation, the same customer could just slot the memory card from the digital camera back into the 7Navi machine and print out all the holiday snaps. But that's just one example -- all manner of products are available for purchase, movies and music can all be sampled and watched/listened to in real time, and a new 'bromide' printing service has just been introduced, featuring a host of famous stars and tarento-types for your ogling pleasure.

The interface is cute -- but you guessed that.
In a similar vein, but with perhaps fewer bells and whistles, is Lawson's in-store 'Loppi' multimedia terminal ( Capable of all the ticket and tour booking seen on the 7Navi, Loppi also offers a game downloading capability onto both Game Boy and Nintendo cartridges. It doesn't have quite the same online support of 7Navi's 7dream Web site and distribution system, but it's not far off.

Both terminal types are simple to use. All services are accessed via a touch-screen panel in a step-by-step process that would hardly tax the gray matter of a goldfish. Payments are made either by inserting coins into the machine itself or -- for the kind of item that needs to be collected at the counter or delivered -- on pickup. So far, so good. Prices, too, are reasonable -- but you have to be careful. In one case, booking a hotel room at the Makuhari Prince hotel, ordinarily just over ¥36,000 a night, apparently cost only ¥19,000 (far cheaper even than the hotel's special online booking offer of ¥27,000). But, says reservation team member Ishii, "The room type is not always the same. The 7-Eleven machine says 'twin room,' but it's a 'studio twin,' which is a single room with an extra bed. The cheapest way," he says, "is to make a reservation directly from our hotel home page."

This kind of scenario defeats the purpose of using the 7Navi machine in the first place, surely? At best, it's a case of caveat emptor -- at worst, it's worth wondering if the machines are necessary at all. Necessity, according to Plato, is the mother of invention and perhaps in order to keep pace with -- or get one step ahead of -- the competition, the 7-Eleven company feels these high-tech terminals are the solution. Indubitably, the photo printout function succeeds in being both quick and easy, and in providing a service that is not easily done even at home, and I, for one, will be returning to 7Navi to use it again. Friends, too, have expressed keen interest in using it to buy concert tickets as a more attractive alternative to the dodgy neighborhood ticket agent.

One problem, however, may have to do with perception. The convenience store concept -- somewhere you quickly drop by to pick up a drink, snack, or whatever else -- doesn't lend itself to customers who might stand in front of a terminal for upward of 20 minutes browsing. For one thing, the customer to machine ratio is 1:1, threatening long, unwieldy lines that would disrupt the normal customer flow if more than a couple of people use it. The other barrier is more psychological: "ATM syndrome," where customers feel uneasy making transactions while the possibility exists of someone peering over their shoulder.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle for storeowners to overcome is convincing customers that they actually want, or need, the services the 7Navi terminals can provide. In researching this article, I visited maybe six stores, and not once was anyone using the 7Navi or Loppi machines. I have yet to meet anyone who has used one of these terminals on spec. And when we tried to ask storeowners what percentage of customers used the machines, we got stony silences.

"It's still a bit early to tell (which application is most popular) because not all of the stores have the machines yet," cautiously observes a more cooperative Yoshitake-san, manager of a 7-Eleven near Shibuya, "but downloading music to MiniDisc is really popular here." Clearly, though, 7Navi doesn't yet have them packing the aisles, and if it did, well, the resulting customer gridlock could bring the greatest irony of all: inconvenient convenience stores.

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