Photo/Illutration“Onigiri” rice balls subject to "discounts" in a Lawson store in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, on June 11 (Aki Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Leading convenience store chain Lawson Inc. started limited trial sales of food products with an effective discount on June 11 to reduce waste, but will expand the program nationwide if it proves successful.

All of the company's 450 outlets in Okinawa and Ehime prefectures are involved in the campaign.

Discounts in the form of reward points are applied to products such as “bento” lunch boxes and “onigiri” rice balls that are approaching their expiry dates.

Customers who are members of “Ponta” or “d point” cards can receive the reward points if they purchase products that have only seven to 13 hours before their expiry dates. Purchases must be made later than 4 p.m.

A seal reading “Another Choice” is pasted on those products. Reward points equivalent to five yen are given for each 100 yen spent. In addition, 5 percent of the sales price subject to the effective discounts will be donated to charities that support children, Lawson said.

“It is better than buying in other stores. I don’t mind (that the food products are close to) their expiry dates,” said Masahito Kaneshi, 44, who visited a Lawson outlet in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture.

“If (the program) proves popular, we want to introduce it across the country without waiting for Aug. 31 (deadline of the experiment),” said Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu.

Unlike supermarkets, major convenience store chains have shied away from offering discounts. Discounts offered by store owners at their own discretion have been limited. Of the 15,000 or so Lawson stores nationwide, only 10 percent have implemented discounts for bento and onigiri that were close to their expiry dates.

“When we thought that we want to tackle social issues more aggressively in all of our stores, we decided to adopt this form (reward points),” said Takemasu.

Seven-Eleven Japan Co., another major convenience store chain, also plans to offer similar effective discounts at its 20,000 outlets nationwide from autumn.

About 500 products that have only four or five hours before their expiry dates will be eligible for effective discounts. Customers who purchase those products with Seven-Eleven’s electronic money “nanaco” can receive reward points of about 5 percent.

The initiative by the convenience stores drew mixed reactions from experts and store owners.

“It will have a big impact,” said Kosuke Ogawa, a professor at Hosei University’s Business School of Innovation Management.

Trial calculations suggest that unit sales of bento and onigiri will increase by 15 to 20 percent, reducing food loss for those products to about one-third. Both store owners and chain operators stand to benefit.

Kaori Hirayasu, 35, who operates three Lawson stores in Okinawa Prefecture, said, “There are pros and cons about discount sales implemented by store owners at their discretion. Reward points offer a good compromise as store owners do not have to shoulder a financial burden.”

But some store owners cast doubt on the wisdom of the program.

Given that supermarkets often offer discounts on food items of about 50 percent, a Seven-Eleven store owner in Tokyo said: “At 5 percent, the discount will be meaningless. If the chain operator really wants to eradicate food waste, it must allow store owners wide latitude to use their own judgment.”

The Fair Trade Commission decided in 2009 that Seven-Eleven headquarters’ practice of limiting store owners’ discounts amounts to a violation of the Anti-Monopoly Law and ordered it to desist.

But Seven-Eleven and other chains have adhered to sales at fixed prices. As a result, discounts offered by store owners at their own discretion did not spread widely.

“Traditionally, convenience store chain operators have not allowed outlets to lose sales opportunities by merchandise running out of stock and have operated on the assumption that all products left unsold will be discarded," said Rumi Ide, a researcher on issues concerning food waste.

“The latest initiative is a first step," she said. "There are more things (the chain operators) can do, such as offering bigger discounts.”

In Japan, food waste amounts to 6.4 million tons a year, of which nearly 60 percent originates from companies such as convenience stores, supermarkets and food makers. The remaining 40 percent comes from households, according to the Environment Ministry and other sources.

(This article was written by Aki Sato and Shimpei Doi.)