August 14, 2007
‘Taiwan is a 7-Eleven Culture’
By Monica Eng
TAIPEI, Taiwan - From the intersection of Zhongshan and Zhongxiao roads in Taiwan's bustling capital, you can spot at least four 7- Eleven stores as you turn north, south, east and west. No joke.
While this corner might fall on the high end of the island's 7- Eleven density spectrum, the cluster of identical stores fazes no one. With about 23 million people and more than 4,400 7-Elevens, Taiwan boasts the highest per capita number of these all-night convenience stores in the world.
Around every corner
The saturation is not lost on locals, who are quick to quote a not-so-ancient Taiwanese expression meaning something like: "There's always a 7-Eleven around the next corner."
In Taipei, this is no exaggeration. Scan the horizon in just about any of the capital's neighborhoods and you'll spot the familiar orange, green and red stripes that have become the near- universal symbol for all-night shopping, icy drinks and rolling hot dogs.
In Taiwan, however, they herald a lot more.
"If you want someone to send you a package in Taiwan, you don't ask for their address; you ask them for their local 7-Eleven," explained Albert Lin, a marketing specialist who moved from Wilmette, Ill., to Taipei to work for a technology company a few years ago.
Indeed, for busy, two-earner families, deliveries are much easier to pick up from an all-night convenience store than from the postal carrier during the day. 7-Eleven's Taiwanese parent company, Uni- President, happens to run one of the biggest delivery businesses on the island.
But that's not all. At Taiwanese 7-Elevens - thanks to a machine a bit like an ATM on steroids - you can book travel, send documents, buy Wi-Fi cards, and pay tuition bills, credit card bills, utility bills, property taxes and even traffic tickets.
Introducing the iPod
When Apple introduced the iPod shuffle to Taiwan, where did it roll out? You guessed it, the local 7-Elevens.
Chen-yuan Tung, the vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, uses the home of the Slurpee as a metaphor for his society, explaining that "Taiwan is a 7-Eleven culture. Late into the night you can eat at our night markets, during any time of day you can pay your bills at a 7-Eleven, you can log into your wireless at Starbucks, and then all night long you can talk to people all over the world with MSN or Skype."
If a Department of Health initiative goes through, Taiwanese drug addicts soon might be able to exchange used needles for clean ones at the ubiquitous convenience stores.
First introduced to the island in 1980, the stores have proliferated to the point where there is about one for every 5,200 Taiwanese. Some nearly face each other across the street.
This saturation has not been lost on some locals who criticize the chain's dominance, saying it has driven out mom-and-pop operations. Some even accuse the franchisers of setting up 7- Elevens across the street from each other just to thwart a competitor from moving in.
The largest operator, franchiser and licenser of convenience stores in the world, 7-Eleven Inc. was founded in Dallas 80 years ago. However, in November 2005, the privately held company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Ltd. in Tokyo, which licenses all international franchises.
"Make life easier and simple"
"For 7-Eleven, we just want to give our customers the most convenient services and best products to make everybody's life easier and simple," Julia Chia, a Taipei-based spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an e-mail. "We hope to take care of everything which may trouble or annoy our customers, and satisfy their needs as [much] as we could. ... I believe we have changed the lifestyle of Taiwan people."
A real estate selling point
Chia said some real estate agents use a nearby 7-Eleven as a selling point to clients.
Convenience aside, the popularity of 7-Eleven food is still a little baffling in a place with some of the most delectable street chow in the world.
The answer seems to lie in the long-lasting packaging of micro- waveable breakfast sandwiches, the tea eggs, the steamed buns and the inexpensive Japanese-style snacks, including musubi, a sushilike, meat-topped rice; onigiri, a rice ball wrapped in seaweed; and a soup with an array of processed meat products on a stick.
The culinary selection goes beyond these fast-food selections. For Taiwan's demanding foodies, the stores also offer preorders of seasonal fare like Hokkaido king crabs, fresh persimmons and moon cakes.
As in other Asian countries, the concept of ginormous soft drinks like the Big Gulp is foreign to the Taiwanese, but Slurpees are on tap at some locations in southern parts of the island. And for Americans abroad and sorely missing a familiar taste of home, there's always the rolling hot dog.
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