6 Ways Convenience Stores Have Changed the World
Although you wouldn't know it from the whining that fills nearly every page of the Internet, the world's actually a pretty easy place to live in. We're surrounded by products and services and features designed to make our lives easier, to the point where people from a generation or two earlier must think we're huge mewling babies every time we open our mouths.
"Someone registered the Twitter account "@hampirate" before you could? That sounds much worse than being shot four times in Korea."
There's a lot of reasons for the general easing of our lives, even aside from obvious things like the arrival of the Internet and the general decline in popularity of Asian proxy wars. Like for example, convenience stores. No bull; aside from granting you the ability to get corn snacks at hours our ancestors would have considered impossible, if not downright degenerate, convenience stores have changed the world in more ways than you can count.
Unless you can count to six.
Here are six of them.
Of course, at most convenience stores you can do a lot more than just buy Cheetos.
You can still do that though, so don't worry.
The big selling feature of convenience stores is, intuitively, their convenience. Selling things that we could get elsewhere, but just making it easier for us. This has been extended into some pretty innovative areas; depending on the country you live in, convenience stores will let you:
Do Some Banking
Convenience stores and grocery stores were among the first to get off-premise ATMs installed in them. Convenience stores ended up being ideal places for these off-premise ATM deployments; they were brightly lit, staffed locations where people needed cash.
And they let you do your banking without having to subject yourself to bankers and their judging eyes.
Buy A Phone Card
Phone cards are little cards you can buy with a 1-800 number and a PIN that allow you to contact a telecom company, which will provide you with cheap long distance (which is great for people who are still paying "long distance").
"Hello, Mega-Legit-Success-Communications? Grandma, please."
They actually work great, but without the convenience stores acting as trusted middle men, it seems unlikely these telecom companies would ever have gotten anyone to give them a cent.
You Know Something? Forget It, Let's Just Buy The Whole Freaking Phone
For people with limited access to credit (a non-trivial portion of convenience store customers), getting a cell phone used to be a huge pain in the ass. Prepaid cell phones simplified that, offering cell phones off contract that could be filled up with cash at various locations. Now, even people with ruined credit had a whole new world opened up to them, and it was in part thanks to the ready-built distribution system that convenience stores offered.
And by "whole new world" we mean they could start playing Snake.
Basically Everything An Asian Person Could Want
It turns out that in Taiwan you can apparently pay parking tickets at convenience stores. Throughout Asia, in fact, convenience stores offer all sorts of services, like ordering couriers, photocopying, sending faxes, making bill payments, or picking up concert tickets. Why? Basically, convenience stores have caught on in Asia in a way that would surprise many Americans. And, because they're so common and popular, they've been forced to compete on their one defining feature: convenience. How popular are they? In Japan and Taiwan, probably due to simple population density (or their insatiable love for Pocky), there are now something like three to four times the number of convenience stores per person as the United States.
Japanese students continue to put American students to shame on Pocky consumption.
Ice is that cold thing we can totally make ourselves in our freezers, and that's about all most people ever really need to know about it. Sure, we sometimes have to buy it in bulk if we need to drink beers by a lake, but that doesn't really seem like the kind of thing to hang a business model on.
"So I've crunched the numbers, and if our average customer buys $3 worth of ice a year, that means the government is going to bring back debtors prisons just for us."
But believe it or not, fridges didn't always exist. In the bad old days, ice used to be dug out of crazy, distant places like New England and shipped around the world, where people would jam it up on their food to prevent it from spoiling. Because that was apparently easier than simply inventing refrigeration.
Even when artificial refrigeration was finally invented, for a long time, it involved big heavy, frighteningly poisonous equipment, which wasn't the kind of thing people wanted to keep in their houses. Ice then had to be made at local ice plants, where people would visit to pick up ice. These ice houses, needing to obviously be relatively close to people's homes, became the forerunners of the first convenience stores. Indeed, 7-Eleven got its start when some guy who worked at an ice dock started making a few extra bucks on the side, selling milk and bread. From there it was a quick step on to drinks, snacks, and other delicious treats.
Sweet Frozen Beverages
Only one species on the planet has mastered Slurpee technology, and it should come as no surprise that it's the same one currently on top of the food chain and complaining on the Internet about things. Humanity has Got It Going On, and the Slurpee drink (and its various counterparts) are among the brightest of stars in our firmament of accomplishments.
Take a hike, penicillin.
And to think that it all came about as a happy accident. In the 1950s some guy wanted to sell soda, but, lacking a soda fountain, he started keeping bottles of soda in the freezer. Because cold's cold, right? They froze, because it turns out that cold isn't cold at all, and when he tried serving this to his customers with his fingers all sorts of crossed, he was surprised to find that the teens of the 50's loved it.
"We're digging this boss treat, Daddy-O. Hot rod sock hop heavy petting."
Can you imagine a world without Slurpee drinks? Can you imagine how dark it would be every day? You know those photos you sometimes see from the early days of photography, where the colors are all washed out and people's eyes are blacked out? That wasn't a visual artifact. That's what a life without Slurpee drinks is like.
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.
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.
"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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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