Samui Wining & Dining
Koh Convenience

Born in America, convenience stores play a big part in modern Thai life.

 Born in America, convenience stores play a big part in modern Thai life.Next time you're in one of Samui’s many convenience stores after midnight, you'll probably be appreciative that such stores open so late. If you're at all gemmed up on convenience store history (not many people are) you'll know that the 24/7 operating hours all date back to a ball game that took place in 1963, in Austin, Texas; a match held late in the day meant that the local 7-Eleven (the stores were named after their daily working hours) kept open way beyond its usual closing time. Business boomed that night, and the store managers looked in amazement at the takings. From then on it was clear: the store could and should stay open a lot longer– and so the 24 hour convenience store was born.

The idea of a never-closing store caught on in many countries, and especially Thailand, which ranks as number three in the world when it comes to having the most 7-Elevens. It’s only overtaken by the USA, in first position, and Japan, in second.

The other store of this kind in Thailand is Family Mart. Neither of them looks even remotely Thai, but they’re so ingrained now in the culture that without them Thailand wouldn’t be the place that it is today. Usurpers or part of the landscape? Many holidaymakers coming to tourist centres like Samui, Phuket or Krabi presume that the stores are there for westerners. Nothing could be further from the truth. Go into any of them and you’ll find that it’s mostly Thai people who are shopping. The stores are one more example of how Thailand is inspired by what’s happening in the outside world, and then begins to assimilate it until finally it becomes a Thai institution in itself. Today there can be very few Thais who haven’t been to a 7-Eleven or Family Mart.

It was initially very hard for 7-Eleven to get started in Thailand. Existing grocery store owners were unwilling to change to the new 7-Eleven system, which was little known. Their stores were already making good profits, and were well-placed for their customers who regularly dropped in. The solution was for the company to set up some stores by themselves, and once up and running find franchisees to take them over. However, today, you can still see a fair number of Thai-style convenience stores which command the loyalty of customers who usually live in the neighbourhood. Many have been running for decades. They’ll be staying too, and are an equal part of the Thai landscape. If you’re on Samui, you’ll see plenty of these stores run by family members who take it in turns to keep the store open long hours, though it’s never all day and all night. Prices are typically written on the products themselves, and there’s no cash till as such and no receipts. These stores sell a range of goods that the very local customers will ask for. Apart from food, this might consist of cleaning products, seeds for planting, hardware supplies, drinking water and gardening accessories.

These Thai-style convenience stores are now facing ever greater competition as more and more 7-Elevens and Family Marts open. Drive along Samui’s ring-road and in most parts there’s one of the new breed every kilometre. In places they face each other across the road, inviting you to take your pick. Holidaymakers and residents alike even complain that there are simply now too many. Yet, very few close down. They’re always in business, and of course their doors are always open. Pop inside and you’ll see why. The stores are immaculately clean, bright and everything is clearly presented. There’ll be quite a lot of variety, though for some items, whole aisles will be devoted to popular products. If you’re into potato crisps, for example, there’s an enormous range. The same goes for carton drinks. The staff also double as cooks – making instant meals in microwave ovens. They have also introduced the nation to toasties, and have whetted the Thai appetite for something that previously was a western liking only – bread.

Whether you think convenience stores are a blight on the landscape, or you love the sheer number of services and products they offer, it looks like there’s going to be ever more of them. On Samui you'll see new ones going up every month, as more and more people seem to demand their services.

          

Dimitri Waring



 


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