#3. 24-Hour Culture
Because human beings are terrified of owls, we tend to prefer moving about during the daytime. And -- because stores are typically run by human beings -- at most points in human history, if you wanted to buy something after 6 p.m., you couldn't, because the store owner had gone home to his owl shelter.
"Another day done, beloved family. Now bar the doors and chimney, quickly."
When gas lamps and electricity arrived, stores would stay open later, at least as much as it was possible to get business. And once they arrived, it was convenience stores that took up the leading edge of this trend, as they would with a business model centered on providing "convenience." This is where 7-Eleven got its name from, used as a way to advertise its hours, seven am to eleven pm being a pretty remarkable span in the years following World War II.
The rapid spread of electric lights, and, of course, allied radar technology, having finally managed to defeat our greatest enemy.
Eventually a sort of feedback effect kicked in; convenience stores stayed open later because they noticed people trying to shop later, and thus people began shopping later because they knew they could still get meat snacks. This trend eventually, inevitably, led to stores being open 24 hours a day, which our owl-fearing ancestors would have never imagined possible.
Don't think that's changed the world? Well, think of all the vital people that work odd hours, like shift workers and doctors and police officers and Las Vegas dancers. Also the unemployed; they're up late too. Think of how much hungrier they'd all be without convenience stores. Would they even take their jobs without knowing they could get milk somewhere after their shift was over? If that doesn't convince you, think of how much more irritable smokers would be. Without convenience stores, the rest of us day-walkers would wake up one morning to find the world torn to shreds by an epic nicotine fit.
#2. Coffee To Go
For most of coffee's history, it's been a fixed-location beverage. Even now, in parts of Europe, the idea of take-out coffee is a bit odd. And yet it's a common, and even essential, aspect of North American civic life.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
"You want to head to the Starbucks next door after this one?"
The late arrival of take-out coffee culture centers on the fact that coffee really has to be served hot to be palatable. Insulated flasks and thermoses made it possible for people with foresight to cart their own coffee around with them, and whoopdee-freaking-doo for people with foresight. For the rest of us, who can get tired and cranky without warning, take-out coffee had to wait for the invention of disposable insulating cups to be practical. And that didn't happen until the mid-1960s.
That's the "Anthora," the little blue and white paper coffee cup made popular in New York in the 1960s and seen in every episode of Law & Order, ever. Essentially, it was all those little New York delis and bodegas that broke the seal on selling coffee to go, making New Yorkers just that little bit more irritable. Gas stations and convenience stores followed soon after, aided by the arrival of styrofoam cups, forever changing American civic life.
Seriously. Imagine your typical city center without take-out coffee shops:
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Normally there would be three Starbucks in this picture.
Now think of the people you work with. Imagine them if they had to walk more than five minutes for a coffee.
Polka Dot RF/Polka Dot/Getty Images
Normally there would be three Starbucks' Ventis in this woman.
That's right. Were it not for the invention of take-out coffee, we would essentially be living through a zombie apocalypse.
#1. Maximum Product Variety Per Square Inch
There's a simple fact that dominates almost every calculation in the retail industry: Real Estate Is Expensive. Every square foot of floor space in a store costs money to rent, which means that if there isn't a rack of potato chips standing on that square foot, it's not earning its keep. Consequently there's very little storage space in retail, and almost none in convenience stores. The mythical back room that we all envision either doesn't exist or is way smaller than we'd ever imagined.
Barely big enough for a mop, and even the mop will be expected to cover the till a few times a day.
Having no back room presents a real challenge for convenience stores, which, with their rapid turnaround of products, often have to be resupplied multiple times a day. And when we consider their ability to stock fresh food -- sandwiches, baked goods, fruit -- it's obvious that a massively complicated logistics train is at work, here. A massively complicated logistics train that is almost invisible to the consumer, except when it takes up one of the parking spots, at which point we yell at it.
Tay Jnr/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Pictured here: A jerk delivering Cheetos, slowing you down from buying Cheetos.
Obviously, convenience stores weren't alone in mastering logistics; their evil twin, the supermarket (inconvenience store?), had a hand in this, as well. But because of their particular circumstances surrounding convenience stores, they have made some of their own innovations.
In Japan, many stores log basic customer data, like age and gender, with all purchases, so that they know what's selling, and to whom. That information is useful to all retailers, but it's doubly important for convenience stores because of how much they rely on foot traffic and impulse purchases. Getting a single sale, say, by knowing to stock umbrellas in the spring for stores next to train stations dramatically increases the odds of getting extra sales, of gum or soft drinks or whatever.
"Cool Ranch rice balls? Sure, why not?"
So, if you've ever wondered how convenience stores always seem to have at least one kind of cheese-powder-covered snack you're craving, it's because they've put about a thousand times more thought into it than you have. There are, right now, experts thinking about your cheese-powder cravings so you don't have to.
What an age we live in.
A golden, tangy age.
If you're hungry for more funny, fascinating food articles, check out Cracked's Food for Thought hub.