First off, what is a Konbini?
Konbini is a Jenglish term for “convenience stores”. It’s fitting that they have their own umbrella term for all the 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, Mini Stop stores across the country. You cannot escape them; they are EVERYWHERE. You will daydream and nightdream (?) about them. These konbinis are so much more than what I am used to here in Toronto. I could live off of the food they have here. No, really, I could, because some of them carry fresh produce.
Below I have listed 10 brands of konbinis with a brief explanation of each. There are more brands in Japan for sure, but these are ones I saw in person in my 30 days of walking around as a tourist in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, and have actually visited to get my fixes *eye twitch*.
The Top 3 konbinis are definitely 7-11, Family Mart and Lawson, no question about that. It’s to the point where I have seen two Family Marts located within a 5-second walk from each other, no joke. This is also the case for 7-11 and Lawson. Like, I’d shop at a 7-11, then cross the street and literally see another 7-11, offering pretty much the same things as the previous 7-11. Do they have the same owners, or is it two owners working for the same brand competing against each other? I have no clue, but the market cannibalization must be fierce.
Without further ado, here is a quick intro of each brand, and some of the distinguishing factors, from my personal experience. Brands are ordered from most frequently seen, to least.
Out of all the brands, I saw the most of Family Mart. Not only is it common to see on the big streets, it was also in many nooks and crannies, and consistently spread out in the three cities I was in. Some Family Marts have an oden section, and they even advertise their oden section specifically on TV. However, I have found 7-11’s odens a bit more tastier. Personally, Family Mart’s food or bread or desserts did not entice me in terms of look and taste, but I shopped here a lot because there are so many of them around.
7-11, everyone knows about because this is a global brand. Most importantly, some 7-11s have international ATMs that accept foreign debit cards. The only reliable ATMs that will accept a tourist’s debit cards are at some 7-11 stores and Japan Post (yes, post offices have ATMs). I actually did not see much of 7-11 in Kyoto in general, as Lawson was the more dominant there, but I think 7-11’s food was generally the best tasting out of the Top 3. Their oden was good (not all locations have it), and their meal-replacement bread section has a large selection, and is the tastiest.
I saw a concentration of Lawson stores in Kyoto, but otherwise, it’s the rarer one out of the Top 3 in Tokyo and Osaka. Their desserts are the best in terms of quality, look and selection out of the Top 3. I also found their sandwiches very tasty. Surprisingly, their meal-replacement bread section always have a smaller selection and look lacklustre. I tried a hot pork bun here, and it wasn’t that great. I stuck to buying the sweet stuff and sandwiches from here.
Lawson 100 carry fresh produce and household products, so I saw these in resident-heavy streets.
Natural Lawson features more organic and healthier packaged foods, and more beauty products than the other konbinis. Most konbinis carry only the essential beauty products, and you’re better off going to the pharmacy stores. Natural Lawson somewhat strikes a middle between the two, and I think it’s good for residents to get their daily beauty stuff. But for tourists, just go to a pharmacy, they’re not that hard to find.
Circle K (or as I like to call it, K mart), and sunKus stores were bought out by Family Mart. Stores still carry these signs on the front, but if you walk in, their products are all Family Mart branded. So yeah, these are pretty much Family Mart clones.
Ministop is owned by Aeon Retail, a huge retailer that owns super-tall department stores, so it’s pretty good in terms of selection. I didn’t walk into too many of these because I had more than enough 7-11, Lawson and Family Marts than I needed.
You’ll see these around, mostly in Tokyo. It is similar to the others, but the selections are a lot smaller. Also, depending on the location, it’s very grungy. I walked into one of these and felt like some hooded Japanese teenage gangster was gonna come in and rob the store and hold me hostage. The second one I went to was a lot brighter and better-managed. I only bought one can of drink from here, so can’t say much about it.
I don’t even know what this is called, but I shopped at one that was in a subway station in Kyoto. I bought some desserts from here, and it was really good. Their desserts are not branded in their name like 7-11, Lawson or Family Mart has, but they get it from a company called Premium Sweets and it was really, really good.