USB sticks or lipsticks? Train tickets or tea-cooked eggs? They have them all, always
We first learned about the wide variety of services offered by Taiwan’s convenience stores when we came on holiday. We wanted to visit a museum in Tainan, in the south of the island, and needed to buy tickets for the high speed bullet-train.
So we went to the hotel’s reception desk and asked where we could buy tickets.
We expected the concierge to pull out a map and direct us to the main railway station. Instead, he told us to go back to our room, order them online and collect the tickets from the nearest convenience store.
Half an hour later we were standing inside a branch of Family Mart. We showed the staff the text message the train company had sent and were led to a machine in the corner. The store assistant typed in our reference code and our passport number and out popped a receipt.
He took this back to the counter, and asked us to pay. Then he printed out our tickets, and put them in a small railway company folder.
In the US or Europe, a convenience store is a place to go when everywhere else is closed, for a cheap snack, some milk or cigarettes. Many are built around petrol stations and, in Europe at least, most close before midnight.
Compared to Taiwan, convenience stores in the rest of the world are not very convenient. Here, the meaning of convenience has been completely redefined.
If you walk down almost any street in Taiwan you will pass a convenience store every couple of hundred meters. There are three within 200m of where we live. Across the island there are 11,500 – roughly one for every 2,000 people – and their number is growing. You often find one next to another. The majority are open 24 hours a day, and even stay open during typhoons, when everything else is shut. On average, Taiwanese people visit a convenience store every three days.
The staff in Taiwanese convenience stores are friendly. To many of their customers they are an important part of the local community.
Instead of being greeted with a scowl from someone behind a wire fence, and armed with a bat for their protection, as you might be in the American Midwest, the staff in Taiwanese convenience stores welcome each customer with a cheery hello and a smile.
They also like to help their customers. They help elderly people open screw top jars, children open packets of sweets and everyone to pack their shopping, and always with a friendly smile.
But what really sets Taiwan’s convenience stores apart is the range of goods and services they offer.
All provide a selection of hot food to grab on-the-go. Customers can buy a hot dog, a baked sweet potato, a couple of tea-steeped boiled eggs, some corn on the cob or a steamed pork bun at any time.
Or they can opt for something more complicated, like a bowl of oden or some pineapple bitter gourd chicken soup.
For something fancier they might choose a dish of soy sesame chicken, some grilled fish, a burger, or a bowl of spaghetti bolognese – dishes which have been specially prepared by local restaurants. They can put these in the in-store microwave to warm them up. There is always help available if you need it.
There are freshly made sandwiches in a variety of unusual and delicious flavours, packs of chilled chicken teriyaki, or cubed egg whites, as well as curries, pre-prepared bento boxes, potato salads and a range of onigiri – small triangles of sticky rice filled with salmon, pork floss or various other flavourings, wrapped inside a thin sheet of crispy seaweed. There is also a range of fresh fruits and salads with dressings. Japanese? Italian? Thousand Island?
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the average Taiwanese convenience store could provide you with a different meal for every day of the year.
When we explained to one of our Taiwanese friends that small towns and villages in the UK and Europe don’t have 7-11 stores, she was visibly shocked. “How do people eat?”, she asked. Then the shock cleared and her frown disappeared. “Got it!”, she announced. “They go to Family Mart!”
When we explained that there are none of those either, that there were no convenience stores at all in small towns and villages, her expression of shock returned.
“People in Europe must be very good cooks”, she concluded.
As well as a wide range of meals, every branch sells wasabi crisps, purple taro wafers, and salted fish skin snacks as well as French biscuits and rice crackers. There’s beer, wine, sweets, and a broad range of newspapers and magazines, including some in English.
Pre-packaged drinks include bubble tea, asparagus juice, Korean banana milk, papaya milk, rose honey milk, mung-bean juice, water and cola. How about a caramel egg or tofu pudding? No problem.
At the counter customers can order gourmet coffees and a wide range of teas and other hot drinks. In the chiller there is ice cream, with flavours such as green tea, red bean, milk tea with mochi, or pineapple tart.
The quality of all these foods is also way better than the average convenience store in Europe or the US.
But wait! There’s more.
Now that we live here, we visit convenience stores like everyone else every few days. Sometimes it’s just to get a cream-cheese jam sandwich. Sometimes it’s to pay our gas or electricity bill. Customers can also pay their taxes, and for parking. Or they can pay their credit card bills. Or collect a parcel.
Need a USB stick, an umbrella or an electrical adaptor? They have them too.
Or perhaps you want to return a library book or hand over spent batteries for recycling. Maybe you need to order some photos or print out an A3 poster before you go to a meeting. Or perhaps you would like to collect your dry cleaning. Or recharge your Hello Kitty metro card, get money out of an ATM or buy a prepaid phone card.
In some of the larger outlets, there are sitting areas where you can enjoy a cup of coffee for half an hour and scan the news on your laptop using the convenience store’s free wifi.
Or you might just stare out the window and watch traffic while you wait for the taxi the staff have ordered for you, while your friend visits the loo at the back of the store. No charge, and spotless, of course.
Or perhaps you urgently need a lipstick, or to replace those coloured contact lenses. You need some nail polish maybe or a facial mask?
They’ve got you covered for those too.
You can, of course, collect your national lottery receipt winnings and buy a notebook and stationery. If you feel bored, there are computer games and DVDs for sale. There are also seasonal gifts, should you get caught short on the way to visit relatives during the Mid-autumn Festival or at Christmas.
Since covid it is even possible to make an appointment at your local convenience store to get vaccinated.
Don’t forget to collect those loyalty stickers!
Motorcycle and Family Mart images thanks to Andrew Haimerl