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Stores That Leave You Speechless


Oh sure, it doesn't happen every day, most days you're fine dealing with other people, but there are those times when even saying hello to some convenience store clerk is just too much. Not a major crisis. We all get days like that.

You want a carton of milk to feed the cat or maybe a package of noodles, but it'll just have to wait. You can always deal with it later. Plenty of time to shop tomorrow.

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The good news is that in Japan, at least, this problem is solved. Right now in Tokyo there is a convenience store with about 300 products - candy bars, orange juice, toothpaste, etc. - and absolutely no clerks: just five big display cases and a couple of consoles for ordering what you want and paying for it. And in a couple of minutes you're out of there. No questions asked and no one to ask them, 24 hours a day.

Called "Delice," the store is mostly occupied by one big machine. The floor is terra cotta, and a fringed awning hangs over the entrance, as if it were some sort of junk-food boutique. There are lots of instructions for figuring out how to buy your cookies or soft drinks.

Japan is a country that needs more convenience stores the way America needs more handguns, but a competitive market isn't stopping a company called am/pm Japan Co. Ltd., which is the sister to an American chain of the same name.

Before the end of the century, am/pm wants to establish 500 of these new, automated convenience stores in Japan. The company is looking for places to put them in the United States, too, but some American shoppers probably wouldn't treat Delice all that delicately.

Jun Sekiguchi, an am/pm official who has spent time in the US, isn't blind to the obvious.

"If we put the machine in Los Angeles maybe lots of people would try to break it," he says. Maybe they could automate an armed guard. In any case, the company is thinking about putting the machines in hospitals or airports.

In the meantime, am/pm is hoping Delice will expand its share of the Japanese convenience-store market. To any casual observer walking amid the 50,000 or so combinis that clutter Japan's streets and highways, such expansion seems unnecessary. Japan has more convenience stores than the US and less than half the population.

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The reality is that convenience stores are one of the few healthy parts of the Japanese economy, drawing customers away from supermarkets and traditional mom-and-pop stores. Combinis succeed because they offer services other stores haven't thought of yet: You can pay your utility bills, ask the store to accept a package delivery while you're at work, and buy everything from light bulbs to magazines to cooked rice.

Different convenience-store chains cater to different lifestyles. One focuses on office workers, doing a big trade at lunch and selling shirts and ties to sloppy salarymen. Another provides suburban teenagers and homemakers with a place to sit and chat. A third aims its advertising at urban young people.

The stores function as brightly lit consumer laboratories, since the chains meticulously track what sells and what doesn't and accordingly alter the selection of products available.

Cashiers also discreetly record the sex and approximate age of customers as they buy their goods, meaning that retailers learn what kinds of people buy what products.

Am/pm's Delice, of course, won't be able to offer some of the services that have made convenience stores such an entrenched part of the Japanese lifestyle, but it does have an appeal of its own. The company recognizes that the Japanese are increasingly living more isolated lives, complete with occasional bouts of alienation.

"More and more young people are having difficulty communicating with other people," observes Mr. Sekiguchi as he watches Keiko Takizawa, an office worker, buy a soft drink.

Ms. Takizawa says she likes Delice, noting that prices are about 10 percent cheaper compared with a regular convenience store, a reflection of reduced labor costs.

"I don't have to worry about how I look," she says.

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