Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Convenience stores high on drugs?

September 2, 2009

Takeshi Niinami was a frequent visitor to the drugstore Walgreens in the United States when he was studying at Harvard business school about 20 years ago, buying food and household items in addition to medicine there.

“I wished we had stores like that. It would have been so convenient,” said Niinami, now CEO of Lawson, Japan’s second-largest convenience store chain.


Niinami is finally seeing his wish come true, announcing last week that Lawson will team up with Japan’s No. 1 drugstore chain Matsumotokiyoshi to jointly open outlets that combine drugstores and convenience stores after the government introduced less rigorous restrictions on selling most over-the-counter medicine earlier this year. Niinami sees offering medicine as key in his store makeover efforts to appeal to the older generation.

Still, some recent media coverage on the topic would make you think pharmaceuticals are going to be readily available at your nearby ”combini” in a flash, which looks highly doubtful. In fact, it’s unlikely we’ll see drugs on the shelves at the majority of the country’s 42,000-plus convenience stores, at least under the current regulations.

Sales clerks will have to take exams to qualify to sell medicine, even though the qualification is a lot easier to get than a pharmacist’s license. They will also be required to have a year’s experience working with another qualification holder.

Even if the drug sales are enough to cover the additional labour costs — I’m sure these qualified store clerks will be paid more than regular part-time workers — I bet more than a few store owners will find it hard to secure enough qualification holders to man their stores 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The head of one major chain told me: “We are not expecting to sell drugs widely under the current regulation. We are looking out for possible further deregulation in future.  And for that reason, we are selling drugs at some of our stores to get some expertise in this area.”

Picture credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon


The idea of ‘combinis’ and pharmacies aligning in Japan is indeed a great one. How ironic that, while Niinami-san wished for what he found at Walgreen’s, I would venture into as many Lawson stores as I could while living in Tokyo, thinking ‘We could really use these in the U.S.’ I guess the grass is always greener after all.


Examination for clerks just to sell flu and cold drugs? Isn’t that going a bit too far? Most consumers do know how to read the label and the instruction.


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