Had dinner last night with Takeshi Niinami. We ate at Okame, one of my favorite little Tempura shops in Tsukiji. We met for the first time last year at the New Business Forum Conference that I chaired and agreed to have dinner sometime. It took us 5 months to have dinner. ;-p It was worth it though. Mr. Niinami was interesting and gives me hope that our generation is taking over Japan. ;-)

For those of you who don't live in Japan, Lawson is second biggest convenience shop chain originally built out by Daiei, the supermarket chain. Several years ago Mitsubishi Corporation acquired a 30% stake in Lawson taking it from under Daiei's control. Mitsubishi sent a team of executives in to take over Lawson, but recently surprised everyone by appointing the young (now 44) Mr. Niinami as the president. From SEVP Yorihiko Kojima's presentation on the Mitsubishi Corporation home page:

Yorihiko Kojima, SEVP, Mitsubishi Corp

To be honest, Mr. Niinami's selection as Lawson's next president was greeted with some surprise by many within Mitsubishi Corporation.

Since Mr. Niinami joined Lawson, he's fired people, cut off vendors, even fought with the parent company Mitsubishi who is a big supplier to Lawson to try to make Lawson a healthy company. Mr. Niinami's background in Mitsubishi is in the food business and since a huge share of the convenience shop business is about selling lunches and onigiri rice balls, he is VERY focussed on the food business. He says he spends a lot of time sitting in shops thinking about why things sell, and why things don't sell.

One thing we talked a lot about was all of the chemicals they dump into the food to preserve it. He said that one of the problems was that the media over-simplified things and made it difficult for them. I didn't understand the details, but apparently some places that are using less preservatives end up using some sort of disinfectant or anti-bacterial chemical instead. He said that really trying to understand how to manufacture better and cutting down on ALL of the possibly dangerous chemicals should be the goal and not singling out just certain chemicals. He says that they are investing a lot of money on trying to produce healthier food. He said that one of the problems is that the other convenience shops that don't have enough money are not doing as much research and development and spoil the image for all of the convenience shops. I explained that blogs might be a good place to talk about this. I explained that it was exactly these sorts of complicated issues that the normal media has difficulty with that might work on the Internet.

He also said that there is a real war that continues in the technology of onigiri rice balls. How do you make onigiri to taste like, feel like they're hand made and still have crispy nori seaweed.

We also talked about the color of the Lawson logo. (Blue) Blue isn't a good color for making people feel warm or making people feel like eating. Since Lawson is a franchise business, many of the franchisees are attached to the current logo. He gave me a bag of food from a new Lawson brand/chain that they started that has a more natural food style. They are running these shops themselves to try out new ideas.

Anyway, a lot of people I know complain about Mr. Niinami because they are having a harder time doing business with Lawson since Mr. Niinami has severed many of the old-time relationships that Lawson had. I think this is exactly the type of generational change that Japan needs and I think that Mr. Niinami is doing what every good CEO in Japan should be doing.

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Lawson set up a temporary "Natural Lawson" storefront here in Nagano during the recent Infiorata flower festival. It caught my attention because of the new, pink sign. And even from a distance, I could see a color and design difference in the packaging and product displays that reminded me of natural food stores in the States.

Compared to convenience stores in the U.S., I've always thought of Japanese kombinis as offering much healthier foods already -- at least on the surface. However, there's always been a nagging concern about the preservatives and chemicals that are hidden within the healthy-looking meals. It's great to hear that someone is leading one of the chains ahead of the curve in this area.

Do you know if Lawson ever had a presence in the U.S.? I ask because I'm positive that there was a Lawson convenience store just around the corner from my grandmother's house in Michigan when I was growing up. This would have been in the 1970s. The store closed at least ten years ago, maybe more. Ever since I heard of Lawson in Japan, I've wondered if there was a connection.

I asked Niimi-san and he said that there was once a milk distributor or something called Lawson in the US.

Ahhh... the "Natural Lawson" a few blocks from makes a lot of sense now... like the fresh 1/4 cantaloupe/melon but the instant noodles still don't... :)

When I ask locals what the difference between convenience stores here are, they say it's the food. 7-11 seems to be the top with their bento.

A very negative part of convenience stores here is how they dispose of food that is not "fresh" anymore. Instead of selling it for a lot cheaper, or giving it away to employees or charities; the convenience store has a STRICT policy of disposing it so nobody else can touch it... basically just wasting the food.

There has to be a better way to handle this aspect.

I remember that a friend of mine used to order pizzas to the address of a Domino's that a another friend worked at. When they were about to deliver it and realized that the address was theirs, they would have to dump the pizza. He would then go pick up the pizza from the trash. Obviously, this doesn't always work. ;-P

I don't think this disposal system is just Japanese convenience shops. I remember MacDonald's having a similar policy. I would think that it is more common in litigous USA...

We have the same problem everywhere. As an example, did you know that a significant proportion of cucumbers in the Irish/UK food chain are thrown away, because they aren't straight enough?

People have a lot of strange ideas about what good food should look like, and it's hard for even the mighty Mitsubishi/Lawson to change that. (Though that doesn't mean they shouldn't try.)

Thanks, Ito-san. Every time I've seen a mention of the Japanese Lawson I've wondered about that. I guess it's just a weird coincidence that two companies in roughly the same business on opposite sides of the world would have the same name. They also used the same shade of blue and a drawing of a milk container in their logo. Go figure.

My ex-girlfriend worked at Lawson and she always used to come home smelling like fried chicken. Somehoe, changing the familiar logo to "Natural Lawson" seems a bit, well... Unnatural.

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