Convenience Store Culture: What Have We Lost?

By: Tran Thi Minh Hieu

In Saigon, we see convenience stores replace cafes at a rapid clip. What are we losing as the city’s youth begins to prefer canned coffee to cafe sua da?

A young woman walks into a convenience store, buys a cup of instant noodles, sits down in front of the glass window and eats it right there, while the rain falls outside. It sounds like a common scene in Korean dramas. But wait, this is not Korea – this is Ho Chi Minh City. Nowadays, it is just as common to find young Vietnamese studying on their own or spending time with each other in the numerous convenience stores.

A Growing Business, A Growing Demand

Convenience stores such as Family Mart and Circle K have grown fast in the last decade. According to Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Industry and Trade, by 2016 Circle K has had at least 150 stores in the city, Family Mart 73 stores, B’s Mart 98 stores and Shop & Go 111 stores. Newcomers such as Ministop, VinMart and K-Mart are also quickly increasing their presence.

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International grocery research organisation IGD predicts that Vietnam’s convenience store market will grow by 37.4 percent in the next four years, the fastest in Asia.

For students and young people in the city, convenience stores have become not only a place to shop but also where they can hang out with air conditioning, Wi-Fi and food available 24/7 (or 24/24, as they say in Vietnam). The stores are conveniently located on every other block of streets, with large signs and bright lights, easy to spot and easy to remember. And the ready-made food, while maybe less tasty than elsewhere, is relatively safe and inexpensive.

The recent wave of convenience store franchises resembles the wave of fast food chains that came into Vietnam over a decade ago. KFC, Lotteria and Jollibee became favourite hangouts for young people and enjoyed rapid growth for a few years, though recently their expansion has started to slow down. Compared to fast food restaurants, convenience stores provide a cheaper and more casual alternative for students, and sometimes even healthier options.

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However, convenience stores are also in direct competition with more traditional venues for socialising, such as coffee shops and street food vendors.

Disappearing Cafe Culture

Unlike the more established and omnipresent coffee chains, indie and small cafes usually attract a more mature clientele. It remains to be seen whether the teens who frequent Circle Ks today will switch to more sophisticated food and drinks as they grow up, or whether convenience stores will eventually replace the need for neighbourhood coffee stores.

The future may look brighter for street food stalls, as they are almost impossible to replace – it is not likely Family Mart will sell bot chien anytime soon.

But without the almighty air conditioner and Wi-Fi router, their millennial customers are unlikely to linger for long. Food safety and general hygiene are also areas in which convenience stores outshine street vendors.

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Young people seem to be moving towards an on-the-go lifestyle that values connectivity and convenience more than ever before. Convenience stores fill this demand for something that’s more modern than street food eateries, and less expensive than cafes and restaurants. Students can spend hours on end there, studying, discussing group projects, or just casually chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

They do not seem to mind the drawbacks of convenience stores – a somewhat industrial atmosphere, lacking the creativity and diversity that local stores offer. They often do not mind the quality of food either, as long as their friends are with them.

The Lure of Convenience

While there is still a lack of free and easy-to- access public spaces like libraries, convenience stores provide a great alternative. Even though their shelves are filled with mostly junk food instead of books, they provide enough study space at a price students can afford. With most stores having security cameras and located in crowded areas, they are also safer than many other places in the city for teenagers to hang out after school.

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Perhaps what young people will demand next are convenience bookstores, where they can borrow a magazine to accompany their quick lunch and feed their hungry minds as well as their hungry stomachs. Wouldn’t it be nice?

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