Japanese Convenience Stores: How Less Customer Service is the Best Customer Service

The sheer number of convenience stores that blanket Tokyo and oversaturate the market is an interesting topic in itself. Since Family-Mart bought out AM/PM, it has become the largest chain by far, and comically has locations that face each other from opposite sides of the street. At the station nearest my workplace, there are 3 convenience stores above ground, and 1 below ground, all within the 30 meter radius of the intersection.


A typical Lawson. This location is open.

Writing all about Japanese convenience stores would fill a book, and since I am more inclined to fill a blog post, I would like to write about two little stores near my workplace inside of Tokyo. Let’s take a look at the difference between Family-Mart and Natural Lawson.

Family-Mart is a convenience store practically identical to all competition within Tokyo, sporting an brightly lit interior that reflects off of the waxed white floors, having rows of magazines lining the windows that face the street for customers to freely read, and housing a heated box on the counter full of fried chicken. Despite calling their chicken “Fami-chicken”, they really don’t differentiate themselves from any of the competition in any substantial way. This isn’t a bad thing, since after years of co-existing with the other chains, they have all come up with a formula that helps them remain profitable; selling cheap food to busy people, selling junk food to poorer people, and selling alcohol to drunk people.
Lawson is virtually identical to Family-Mart without the Fami-chicken, but within the past few years began to open branches under the name of Natural Lawson, which have warmer lighting, off-white design, and a variety of organic (expensive) products.

Although there is a lot of overlap between the stores, there are a few areas where Natural Lawson is clearly different;

Rice balls and sandwiches: Natural Lawson charges an average of 170 yen for higher-quality rice balls containing fish eggs or roasted salmon, where other places such as Family-Mart charge an average of 130 yen for rice balls containing shredded salmon. There are sandwiches as well, but most sandwiches are horrible anyways, so being able to buy a sandwich with chunks of lotus root in it isn’t that great.

Juice: Family-Mart has the typical assortment of juice, and Natural Lawson has the same selection, and a few “organic” options priced around 450 yen for a bottle. To put this into perspective, with the current exchange rate of 77 yen to the dollar, 450 yen comes out to far-too-expensive-for-a-single-fucking-bottle-of-juice.

Magazines: I didn’t notice any porn magazines at Natural Lawson, but I also wasn’t looking for them because porn magazines have been obsolete since the invention of the internet. Having no porn coincides with the “holier than thou” feeling that people get when they purchase organic foods.

Of course, the above notes are all poor observations based only off of a few locations, and it is possible that the products differ from location to location, but any fact checking would be detrimental to this post. The next part is solely anecdotal and full of whining since I lacking the vocabulary to properly complain about this in Japanese, I am doing the next best thing; complaining about it on ths internet and ultimately accomplishing nothing.
Natural Lawson has a horrible staff and they all suck, and Family-Mart is staffed by bros who are all awesome.

natural lawson

A typical Natural Lawson. The dark figure is not associated with Natural Lawson.

Since Natural Lawson is the only place near my office to sell the oh-so-tasty salmon egg rice balls that serve as my breakfast 2 days of every week, I shop there on occasion. Each time is an upsetting experience, primarily instigated by one woman in particular, whom I have dubbed Queen Bee. Although not a manager herself, she has likely crowned herself the leader of the other workers due to either being the loudest, the fastest speaking, the oldest, or the one who has spent the most time there. In the eyes of her company, she must be a great employee – serving customers quickly and hitting all of the key points set forth by her HR department and always taking charge. To me, she is obnoxious and incapable of performing customer service that customers would actually enjoy.

1) Unlike in English, there is a traditional greeting in Japanese that shopkeepers used to say to entice people into their stores, which is now used once people enter the store as a friendly greeting. Since it would literally translate to “come in”, some foreign companies such as Gap and H&M encourage their staffs to say “konnichiwa” instead.
Queen Bee must always shout louder than any of the other staff members in Natural Lawson. She is so obnoxious in how she goes about saying it that it is evident that the other staff members are dying a little bit inside each time they hear the rape-whistle loudness of “irrashaemaseeeeeeee!!” for every customer, every 15 seconds. The other staff members always say it with less enthusiasm shortly after Queen Bee, since it is difficult to say “irrashaemase” as loudly after Queen Bee has exhausted the store’s supply of oxygen.
2) She says the HR phrases far too fast for idiot foreigners, and since I am an idiot foreigner, I have had to memorize and anticipate what she is going to say in case she blasts out her set phrases at me.
“wouldyoulikethisheated?”, “Wouldyoulikeseperatebags?”, “Doyouhaveapointcard?”, “Wouldyoulikethestrawinthebag?”
Japanese wear medical masks when sick as not to infect others or to fight pollen allergies, but she perpetually wears the mask throughout the entire year, hiding her mouth and making comprehension of her verbal assault all that much more difficult for me.
3) She doesn’t listen to a goddam thing you say.
One particular situation that sticks in my mind is when I asked the price of a coffee that I had set on the counter, which she grabbed and rang it up and asked if I would like a bag. It was too early in the morning to make a big deal out of it, and the price was then clearly displayed on the register. I bought that 120 yen coffee, and my bitterness was greater than that of the coffee.

“I don’t need a bag” I say every time I visit the store, since I carry a briefcase that I rest on the briefcase resting area in front of the counter, and only ever purchse one or two items. I literally say “I don’t need a bag” each and every instance in which I visit Natural Lawson, but then she will either quickly put my can of coffee in a dainty plastic bag, or ask me “doyouneedabag?”, to which I say “I do not need a bag”. If I don’t need a straw, she becomes visably confused as to how I can drink my coffee without one, and since “really?” would be too casual in Japanese, she asks the same question again.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable in America to go to a convenience store and ask the 40 year old with too much eyeliner what opinion she has on Kiwi Bananalberry Sobe and expect a response, even if it is “I don’t know, I only purchase Orange Frost Gatorade”. Asking Queen Bee if she had tried the new mint coffee was met by “189yen”

4) Queen Bee has ruined all of the other employees
She is the kind of person that sucks life out of the other employees. Since she has been there the longest, and follows HR protocol exactly as written, she is probably on good terms with the manager. There is no way that she is leaving, so the other employees need to put up with her.
All of the other employees at Natural Lawson are practically braindead, speaking quietly and avoiding eye contact with Queen Bee. The only male employee spends most of his time slowly arranging drinks in the back of the store, but shuffled to the register once to help me. I was going to buy a sandwich, but was also interested in a pomogranite and apple juice drink that didn’t have a price sticker, and ended up being 450 yen (about 6 dollars).
I wasn’t about to pay 6 dollars for 12 ounces unless those 12 ounces contained 6 ounces of gin. I asked if I should put it back for him, and he said “I can put it back”. I thought that I would pay for the sandwich and he would put the drink back later, but instead, he leaves the counter, walks past me, and puts the drink back. I hadn’t expected that situation to unfold the way that it did.

Natural Lawson is full of annoying people, but that isn’t the main reason I avoid it. I choose Family-Mart over Natural Lawson because it is full of bros who ignore HR protocol.

family mart

A typical Family Mart. Also pictured; bros.

For the longest time, the Family-Mart (AM/PM at that time) near my office had a wonderful lady in her late 50s who would always greet me with a friendly “hello!” whenever I entered. She was always quick, but patient with my confusion over questions over hot items being in seperate bags from cold items, or if I needed two pairs of chopsticks for the different foods I was buying. She left the store a few months after it was changed to Family-Mart and remodeled, and the staff of the store became a group of 20-30 year old male and female bros who value good service over corporate nonsense.

1) They say “hello” and “good morning”, and don’t belch out the same “come in!” shout that Queen Bee loves. Sometimes they don’t say anything and just smile.

2) They don’t try to upsell me on products, but on a few occasions gave me a heads-up that they had just cooked a fresh batch of fried chicken.
I think they have picked up on my purchasing habits in a few short months much better than Natural Lawson has done over the course of a year. In the mornings I buy a food item and possibly a coffee, and don’t need a bag, receipt or straw. At night, in the rare occasions I go there, I get a piece of fried chicken and maybe a beer, and don’t need a bag or receipt.
They no longer need to ask.

3) They slowly ask if I had a point card.
Well, I suppose “normal conversational speed” would be more appropriate. They will ask “Do you have a T-Point card?” instead of “Doyouhaveapointcard?” They know I have a point card, but it doesn’t really save much more than a few cents in most circumstances, but in the cases of it saving 20 yen or so, they politely point it out. If there are no savings, they don’t ask, which is awesome.

4) Once I asked about the flavor of a drink that was supposedly orange soda mixed with cola. They bluntly said “saiaku”, which could probably be translated as “like ass” or literally as “the worst”, and then laughed. I didn’t buy it that time, but eventually did try it when I saw it at a 100 yen store. It tasted like ass. I should have followed their advice.

The large service discrepancy between the two stores is what has prompted me to stop buying the products that I prefer. Natural Lawson has quality of products, but with such annoying customer service that I feel as though I am a turd that they are anxiously trying to push out as quickly as possible.

Customer service isn’t about following the rules set forth by the company. The company guidelines are a standardization that makes training numerous employees much easier, but when taken literally results in mediocre customer service. When taken to the extreme, results in Queen Bee. She cannot be reprimanded, since she has followed the rules exactly as the company as laid them out, but her behavior acts as a cancer inside of the company, growing so great that it begins to negatively influence all of the other clerks that occupy the space around her. Natural Lawson should take a note from the page of Family-Mart, and hire more people who are capable of acting like people, rather than ape-titted trolls who always hide their faces behind medical masks and frumpy, oval-lens glasses.

Family-Mart will always win out when it comes to customer service, as they ironically treat people less like customers and more like people.


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