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Project X: Challengers - Seven Eleven - Tadashi Ikuta

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Genre: Graphic Novels / Comics / Author: Tadashi Ikuta / Paperback / 200 Pages / Book is published 2006-12-28 by Digital Manga

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      25.10.2010 15:37
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      Supermarkets meet the convenience store- birth of the kombini

      As a kid growing up on various military bases around the world and visiting relatives in various parts of the US, I took the convenience store for granted. Us kids used to collect glass Coke bottles and put them in a little red wagon, and trundle them up to the neighbourhood 7-11 and trade in for change that we would use to buy frozen Slush Puppies and other treats. The convenience store on base was a little shop attached to the base's gas station, and it was like a little 7-11 inside, minus the Slush Puppy machine, but we could spend change cadged from the adults on candy and bottles of juice or soda pop to our heart's content. It was also the place our parents went to grab a pint of milk, an emergency package of baby diapers, loaf of bread, or even a replacement pair of pantyhose if they got an unexpected run in them. There was just something as American about them as apple pie, as up until I reached my mid teens, the USA and American bases were the ONLY places I encountered such places. To be quite honest, as a teen newly removed from military life and plonked down into civilian America, the local 7-11 was a piece of familiarity I could be comfortable with. It was also a place I could go hang out with my friends, as we bought the Slush Puppies, candy, heated ready to eat foods, and magazines with our pocket money. The 7-11 had, without me quite noticing, grown up and changed in ways that I took for granted.

      It had expanded their range in some categories, but slimmed down the stores. They had new refrigeration type units. Technology and the times had changed, so it seemed obvious that everything else, including the convenience store, would change a bit to in order to match the modern era. What I did not know, however, was that this change was not as apple pie as it seemed. 7-11 nearly bankrupted into oblivion. The convenience store format as we knew it almost disappeared from the American landscape as copycat chains and Mom and Pop imitators also struggled. Yes, the economy was in a bit of a nosedive at the time, but that was not the entire problem. The problem was actually...they had NOT changed. That is, they did not change until the industry (and 7-11 in particular) had a fateful encounter. A Japanese supermarket chain in Tokyo was faced with the problem of finding suitable premises for their hyper-sized markets. They tasked two men with coming up with a solution to their expansion issues. With that in mind, they sent one of the two men to America to visit large supermarkets and observe their business practices and clientèle habits. What Toshifumi Suzuki and Hideo Shimizu presented to their company was completely unexpected: go smaller! They had found the 7-11, and were determined that this was the way forward in order to infiltrate and serve local neighbourhoods in Japan.

      Go smaller?! The bosses thought they were mad, and only after much persuasion, and staking of personal reputations and savings, did they get to see a glimmer of hope that their project idea would go forward. Made into a subsidiary company with half of the capital out of their own pockets, these two men gathered a small team and began the hard road of not only getting 7-11 to agree to allow them on board, but to train them. And when they did, all they pretty well much learned was till operations. USELESS! Then, a breakthrough. A young man with a young wife and elderly parents had a struggling neighbourhood liquor store. He had read in the paper about the project, and wanted them to transform his tiny shop into the first 7-11. It was half the size of the American ones, and in an old building. The location was not prime real estate neighbourhood wise, but Kenji Yamamoto offered to put his entire livelihood on the line for the idea. A success would see his family's future ensured, and with his business currently struggling, it was really his only hope. Can they do it?

      What follows is a tale of rugged determination and ingenuity that was truly inspiring, and that actually not only introduced the kombini idea to Japan and the rest of Asia, but ended up rescuing the parent company in America. From the very first page when we glimpse the unassuming 7-11 owned by a now much older Kenji Yamamoto and that is still family ran, to the final page detailing the current state of affairs of those pioneers, one is quite simply hooked. It is a fascinating and eye opening account of of everyday people trying to do just do their job, and do it well, but who end up creating something bigger than themselves. Here in the UK, it particularly resonates. Old fashioned 70s era type convenience stores are floundering, with Tesco stepping in with kombini type shops opening everywhere. An import from America? No, actually. Tesco ventured into Asia, and in Japan, bought a chain of kombini. THIS is the legacy of the 7-11. Spawning an entire industry that they brought from the West, they exported it once again, not just once but twice. Once back to America via their parent company as it faced bankruptcy there. The second time via their imitators were bought by an UK firm (Tesco) who reimported the method of operation back to Western Europe.

      Unlike the idea most people have about comics books and graphic novels, this is no lightweight piece. So well written was this that not only was I riveted, but my two children were as well. Sharing ideals of hard work, strength of determination, and a demonstration of can do attitude, it is not just a story about the men who brought the 7-11 to Japan. It's a manual for success, in business or anything else. If behind the scenes looks and knowing how things are made/work grabs your attention, you should definitely read this, even if you think "comics aren't my thing". Once upon a time, convenience stores weren't Japan's thing either. Amazing what catches on. I'd like to thank Digital Manga for providing me with this copy.

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