I often find myself in convenience stores, despite my better judgement and worse experience. Sure, I know I’m going to pay hideously high prices and be challenged to resist a gargantuan display of unhealthy snacks before reluctantly settling for some sugar-free beverage that leaves surprisingly little change from $10.
And I know I’ll have to endure that absurdly bright lighting – which may explain why the prices are so high, since according to recent reports, it’s not like they’re spending the money on wages – and hunt around for items on special that I’d dare eat.
Or, in those stores that don’t do anything as helpful as display the price, try to guess. The game’s just like The Price Is Right, except it never, ever is.
But as someone who often works unusual hours, they’re often the least worst option. At least they’re always open – well, I’ve often found the doors closed between 3.30am and 4, but let’s not split hairs. Besides, better a mediocre machine-made coffee and an artery-clogging donut or a ‘meat’ ‘pie’ than no food at all, right?
(Well, no, according to just about any dietitian.)
Elsewhere in the world, you don’t have to pay a premium for convenience.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Elsewhere in the world, you don’t have to pay a premium for convenience, with the result that the same kinds of stores – and in some cases, the very same multinational chains – that gouge Australians like Pamplonese bulls have taken the place of supermarkets.
Japan probably has the world’s most famous convenience stores, and when you remember that it’s a country that’s also known for the ubiquity of its vending machines, you’ll appreciate that opportunities to purchase beverages really are everywhere in its major cities.
But Japan’s konbini chains like AM/PM, Circle K, FamilyMart and Sunkus (‘thanks’, would you believe?) offer so much more than just the chilled water and soft drink selections that are available from vending machines – not to mention those curious heated tins of coffee.
There’s an assortment of sweet and salty snacks that resembles what you’d find in an Australian convenience store. And then there are the chocolate-covered pretzels that offer both flavours at once. But you’ll also find extensive hot buffets in the larger branches, many offering fried chicken, steamed pork buns and stewed items known as oden.
An extensive range of reheatable meals is on offer – one English teacher I know lived on dried curry-rice packets for an extended period, but there are salads and fresh sandwiches too.
Some konbini have stationery sections, and some even offer clean t-shirts and undies, in case you’ve missed the last train home and have to go back to work in the same clothes. Tickets for concerts and other events are also available, although you may need some Japanese to navigate through the touch screens.
But even though just about every major city is packed with convenience stores, to the point where the same chains sometimes have an outlet on consecutive blocks, the brilliant thing is that the prices remain refreshingly inexpensive.
Some of the same chains can be found throughout Asia, with FamilyMart and 7-Eleven particularly ubiquitous, and all offer impressive value. But in the west, neighbourhood stores are more likely to be unaffiliated. The UK’s independent high-street off-licenses sell far more than just the alcohol that gave them their names, with some of them offering nearly a full supermarket range.
In contrast, New York’s bodegas (‘warehouses’, literally) generally offer a smaller selection, often with products reflecting the diverse backgrounds of the owners and nearby residents. Religious artefacts like candles are often seen on bodega shelves, for instance, while those with Muslim owners are sometimes distinctive for their lack of beer on their shelves.
Many NYC bodegas are suffering due to rising rents and increased competition from chains, but they remain an iconic part of the city’s landscape, and as in many parts of the world, including Australia, the employees – and often customers – tend to be recent migrants.
It’s part of a shift in how we live, to purchasing food for today or tomorrow instead of devoting time to a comprehensive weekly shop.
Australian consumers have tended to favour larger supermarkets, but even here, the national chains here have begun experimenting with smaller formats. It’s part of a shift in how we live, to purchasing food for today or tomorrow instead of devoting time to a comprehensive weekly shop. That can feel a little too much like commitment when you might end up going out, and so we increasingly plan only a day or two in advance.
I don’t have any evidence for it, but I’ve often wondered whether a shift to cheaper convenience stores here in Australia would lead to much higher volumes. Personally I’m happy to do a lot of my shopping only when a direct need arises – but I can’t stand paying a huge markup for the privilege. A shop around the corner with inexpensive prices, though – now, that really is convenient.
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