What you need to know
An inside look at how the convenience store chain began operating like a government agency.
I picked up my first Taiwan parking ticket the other day and, after identifying the issue with my choice of random roadside parking space, headed down to my nearest 7-Eleven to pay the fine.
After inexpertly cranking through a translation app, I established that my request to pay the “motorbike fee” was not sufficiently detailed – and that, between simultaneously microwaving three different meals to lunch temperature, the 7-Eleven staffer on duty did not know what I was trying to pay.
Eventually it became apparent the staff member was trying to establish whether I was trying to pay a parking or speeding ticket, and it became apparent to me that each 7-Eleven still possessed capabilities that I had no idea about.
In the UK there is debate about whether this can contribute to a criminal record, and in certain cases must be disclosed to your employer. Within my lifetime, I’ve seen two UK politicians serve prison sentences for picking up a speeding fine and opting to follow it up with a unhealthy dose of dishonesty. That this fairly serious offense can be dealt with at a Taiwan convenience store baffles me, as do many of 7-Eleven’s extracurricular activities.
You can pay fines at one, and be awarded a lottery ticket by way of thanks, and then cash in your lottery winnings at that same venue should you be a lucky winner.
You can measure your blood pressure at a lot of 7-Elevens, and use it as a sort of auxiliary post office to send and receive post. It’s a meeting place; a place to eat, drink and sleep.
You can, with only moderate exaggeration, rely on 7-Eleven to provide a different meal every day of the year. You can pay taxes there, for reasons I can’t fathom, and if you ask nicely, they’ll let you warm food bought elsewhere in their quad-microwave mega-unit. It’s got more street-presence than the Taiwanese police, and is without explanation the only shop in the city that stays open during typhoons. You can print, scan and fax from a 7-Eleven, send money, summon taxis and get your dry cleaning sorted at a few, too.
7-Eleven recently announced that 400 of its Taiwanese stores would no longer be able to continue running throughout the night, and there was public outcry at the suggestion. For Taiwanese, 7-Eleven is a 24-hour stop to collect models of BMW motorbikes, pay phone bills, buy tickets to shows and events, buy cold weather gear, renew your driver’s license, and in the 382 days I have been living in Taiwan, I have seen exactly one closed; once, in Pinglin county, because a new 7-Eleven had opened a few minutes down the road.
Some stores have a dedicated Line group where you can check in and discuss what’s going on locally. In the instance of civil unrest, each 7-Eleven has a “battle group” of local militiamen primed and ready to jump to their region’s aid.
That last point is an outright lie, of course. But it does illustrate something that puzzles me: 7-Eleven plays such a big part in Taiwan, it can start to feel like an abnormally proactive government agency. It’s a really convenient thing to have around, but I have never quite understood how an American convenience store chain came to be so responsible the healthy function of this country. Did the government devolve administrative responsibility to a chain store? Is 7-Eleven government-owned?
Digging in to the corporate structure, you realize that 7-Eleven’s influence extends beyond convenience stores. Based in Tainan, Taiwan since 1967, Uni-President Enterprises Corporation has been responsible for the brand since 1979, and is the proud parent company responsible for many of the stores found on the average Taiwanese street including Starbucks, Mister Donut, Carrefour, COSMED, and Books.tw.com. They own the largest shopping mall in East Asia down in Kaoshiung. And, if you couldn’t guess from the name, they also own a fairly successful Tainan baseball team known as the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions.
Forbes has Uni-President down as the 812nd largest publicly traded company in the world, with a reported 2018 revenue of NT$399.86 billion (US$1.295 billion). The company isn’t just wealthy, but geographically ever-present as well, with Taiwan boasting the second highest ratio of convenience stores to people of anywhere in the world, just ahead of Japan and one step behind Korea, with one for every 2,211 people (Korea sits at a whopping 1,452 per person).
7-Eleven didn’t just leap on to the Taiwan convenience scene fully formed, ready to eat up separate components of the state apparatus. It launched in Taiwan in 1979, and didn’t manage to turn a profit for the next six years, finally coming good when it ditched its focus on groceries and vegetables in favor of ready-made, localized goods and foods, apparently powered by a particular focus on tea eggs. Growth began to slow in the 1990s as Taiwanese streets began to experience convenience store saturation (Family Mart, the source of 7-Eleven’s existence, entered the market from Japan in 1988), at which point 7-Eleven began to jump on the innovation train in a big way.
It was found that large profits could be reaped from “unplanned purchases”: people being lured in to existing stores, and picking up a few unexpected snacks on their way out the door. This started with ATM services and continued at a big pace as 7-Eleven cut deals with a range of different organizations, promising providers of electricity, water and phone contracts to collect fees on their behalf with only a 2-week transfer cycle. This allowed 7-Eleven to improve its cash flow, generate more footfall in stores and maximize unplanned purchase opportunities.
It’s estimated that offering services which require so little effort has been so successful, it has boosted the average frequency with which customers visit 7-Eleven stores from an average of three times a week to just under every day of the week. Customers are drawn further in with new partnerships and product lines, money off vouchers, and those weird stickers that let you win model BMWs.
A string of organizational efficiencies came in to supplement this, including the iCash system, accelerating the buying process and facilitating small purchases people may not have been willing to hand over cash for. Introduction of iBon kiosks in 2006 also allowed 7-Eleven stores to take on extra capabilities with little to no increased staff requirement, something which is being taken to an extreme conclusion with the launch of 2018’s unmanned “X-Stores,” which I have still not figured out how to get access to.
For a corner shop, 7-Eleven shoulders a lot of responsibility for keeping Taiwan ticking along. I’d always assumed that taking the time to collect taxes, recoup fines and distribute tiny BMW replicas were duties allocated to the company, reluctantly accepted from what I presumed was a beleaguered state apparatus too busy undertake such action itself. In reality, it’s a deliberate and calculated move from the team at Uni-President, a bid to turn the tasks of social responsibility into an engine for sales of microwave meals, questionable pastries and truckloads of tea eggs.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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