Many people pass through Taiwan's ubiquitous convenience stores every month, with outlets throughout the country, including hundreds in Taipei alone. Competition is fierce, with two of its biggest players, Family Mart and Hi-Life battling market leader 7-Eleven for a bigger slice of the Taiwanese industry. "In our 40 years of experience, we understand that our purpose must be to offer something new all the time," explains a spokesman for 7-Eleven, Taiwan's largest chain. "Every time we extend what's on offer, we are creating new customers rather than taking away customers from somewhere else." Despite being so ubiquitous, the sector has yet to show any sign of reaching saturation point, with the number of shops — which are run on a franchise system — rising every year. According to the Taiwanese Franchise Association (TFA), the average Taiwanese person visits a "convient" store 11 times a month and the average outlet serves around 500 customers a day. While such stores are common across Asia, experts say the key to their success in Taiwan is their finely tuned supply chains that can monitor stock down to a single toothbrush, allowing them to sell an unparalleled array of goods. As well as the usual drinks and snacks, visitors are confronted with a smorgasbord of useful items such as hygiene products, batteries, umbrellas, face masks, memory cards and phone chargers. Complex logistics software keeps track of things like demographics, weather and the school holidays to predict what each store will need more of at a given times. And in a work-oriented culture like Taiwan, where employees spend some of the longest hours in the world in the office, they also offer a home away from home. The stores act as a sort of 24-hour administration center, where customers can obtain official certificates, photocopy and fax documents, pay bills, withdraw cash and book tickets.
Smaller mom and pop stores in Taiwan have been struggling to survive in the face of such flexibility, and even the big corporate giants are having to adapt.
Chains like McDonalds and Starbucks have found themselves having to review their own menus and prices to retain customers, after some convenience stores even began offering fresh coffee. "We apply a strategy of domination," said a pundit. "Even if we have a 7-Eleven on a crossroad, a second is entirely justified as we might be missing out on customers on the other side of the road." At the same time, the chains themselves are all in fierce competition with each other. "We felt it necessary to create a larger distribution group to stay in the competition," FamilyMart said. One of the secrets behind the Taiwan success is the way the stores are restocked — a streamlined, round-the-clock effort. Most shops have no backroom storage. Instead, computers keep a track of every item sold, allowing logistic centers to dispatch exactly the right number of replacements. A delivery truck might bring something as precise as a single toothbrush or pack of toilet roll. This hyper-efficient system allows store owners to squeeze in more items, cut down on the need for staff and means they can fit into a larger number of smaller, cheaper properties.