The 24-hour convenience store chain has been notoriously strict with franchise owners. Could a pandemic change things for good?

By Mike Pomranz
May 20, 2020
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7-Eleven was founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1928 and, as of this year, had grown to 9,364 locations in the United States (some with chicken sandwich shops!). Meanwhile, the chain opened its first location in Japan in 1974 and, despite having less than half the population of the U.S., the country now has 20,988 locations—reportedly about 40 percent of all Japanese convenience stores.

In other words, 7-Eleven is big in Japan and every single one of those stores was required to be open 24 hours per day, seven days per week, with very few exceptions—that is, until COVID-19.

Searching for silver linings in a pandemic can prove problematic, but the New York Times reports that, in Japan, 7-Eleven franchise owners are thankful that the coronavirus outbreak has finally forced Seven & I Holdings—the owner of the brand in Japan—to reluctantly loosen restrictions on opening times. “This is the chance for people to shorten their hours,” franchisee Takehiro Shimada—who, over 20 years as owner, had only closed once for a renovation—told the paper. “The emergency declaration is the reason, the best possible reason.”

As recently as December, a 7-Eleven owner made headlines—and lost his franchise—fighting to close his location on New Year’s Day. Now, 7-Eleven is finally letting a couple hundred of its stores voluntarily close due to the pandemic. Likely a couple hundred more have been allowed to shorten their hours, though the company wouldn’t tell the Times how many exactly. (Some stores were also closed after employees tested positive for the virus.)

What’s not clear, however, is whether this newfound franchisee freedom will spur a change once the pandemic has ended. “Current closures or changes to operating hours related to the virus are temporary measures on an individual basis,” the company said in a statement to the Times. But optimism still lingered. “Nothing like this has happened before,” Takanori Sakai, who heads a small convenience store owner union but works with a different chain, told the paper. “[W]hen the pandemic is over, there will be an opportunity to make this the standard.”

Heck, if people can learn to limit their grocery store visits for months, they can probably go a few hours without all 21,000 7-Eleven’s being open, right?