Photo/IllutrationThis Seven-Eleven outlet in Higashi-Osaka no longer opens late at night. (Yuki Kubota)

Convenience store operator Seven-Eleven Japan Co. will begin a trial run of closing some outlets at night in response to growing demands from franchise owners for a greater say in deciding when to stay open.

Some franchise owners were already blasting the move as a publicity stunt since it will only affect 10 outlets that are directly operated by the largest convenience store chain in Japan.

Seven-Eleven Japan has, in principle, pushed for around-the-clock operations at all outlets. The only exceptions are those located within office buildings that are dark at night, and train stations that also close around midnight.

But from mid-March, the 10 outlets in Tokyo and seven prefectures will open only from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., during which time the effects of shorter hours on sales and product delivery will be checked.

An official with Seven & i Holdings Co., the parent company of Seven-Eleven Japan, said the company's move is aimed at preparing "for social structural changes such as a graying and declining population."

About 98 percent of the 20,000 or so Seven-Eleven Japan outlets are operated by franchise owners. Those outlets will not be part of the trial run, leading one owner in his 60s who manages an outlet in the Kansai region to rant: "Why is this being done at directly-operated outlets? The figures can be fiddled with in any number of ways. I think it is nothing but a publicity stunt that serves as a precondition to the eventual announcement that 'the experiment showed no effects.'"

But at least one franchise owner was happy about the new operating hours.

Mitoshi Matsumoto, 57, gained national prominence after he closed his Higashi-Osaka outlet for a few hours at night because he couldn't find staff for his store.

Seven-Eleven Japan threatened to fine him 17 million yen ($150,000) for violating the franchise contract.

Matsumoto and other franchise owners have also formed a group seeking to enter into negotiations with Seven-Eleven Japan to allow for changes in operating hours.

Matsumoto said he would continue with his efforts to convince Seven-Eleven Japan to allow him to select operating hours for his outlet. Franchise owners are obliged to shoulder the entire burden of personnel expenses on top of paying a percentage of their sales to Seven-Eleven Japan.

Another franchise owner in western Japan also expressed wariness about Seven-Eleven Japan's true intentions, saying the company should hold meetings with franchise owners if it was serious about confronting the issue.

There are also signs that business organizations and government officials are becoming more interested in the issue than they were in the past.

A senior official of the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives criticized Seven-Eleven Japan's handling of the matter in Osaka.

Hiroshige Seko, the industry minister, called March 1 at a news conference for the company's headquarters to hold discussions with franchise owners.

He urged the company to consider issues such as worker shortages, ongoing government efforts to reduce working hours and the needs of local communities.

Seko said it was also important to form a consensus on how society views the need for 24-hour operations of convenience stores.