A visitor from mainland China reflects on Taiwan's love affair with the always-open, eternally stocked convenience store.
What is the coolest thing in Taiwan? Most Chinese tourists will say it’s the pineapple cake or the Taiwanese tea. I have a different answer: the convenience store. Whether it’s the goods it sells, its function or its services, no place in the world can beat Taiwan’s 7-Eleven convenience stores.
In urban areas such as the capital city Taipei, there are 7-Eleven stores every 300 to 500 meters. Even on the island’s remote east coast or near the peak of Alishan Mountain — at an altitude of 2,170 meters — it’s never difficult to find one. And they are all open 24 hours a day.
One Taiwanese newspaper reported that there are more than 10,000 7-Eleven stores in Taiwan. That’s one shop for every 2,000 people, the densest network in the world.
Even when waiting in a hospital or queuing at a government agency, it’s common to glimpse a convenience store in the hallway. You can photocopy a document, have a cup of coffee or eat breakfast while waiting to be called. It’s the first time in my life that I have found waiting to be pleasant.
Even more amazing is what these stores sell. With less than 100 square meters of floor surface, these stores very often sell more than 3,000 items, including all sorts of basic necessities. As a friend who enjoys traveling by bike told me, people who want to travel light can just ride along the “route of convenience stores” and eliminate the need to carry luggage or dry rations. If such travelers brings along a tent and a sleeping bag, 7-Eleven can provide for the rest.
The convenience store serves three meals a day. Apart from virtually any snack or drink you can think of, these stores offer many choices of “bento,” or “lunch box.” The staff will heat it up for you while you comfortably settle yourself down and wait to be served. Meanwhile, television, free newspapers and magazines are available.
The only stop you’ll need
For those who are on the road, free Wi-Fi, mobile phone charging and hot water services are available, not to mention toiletries, cosmetics, simple clothing, general medicines and a wide variety of other daily necessities. ATM machines are often also available.
If you happen to be a tourist who loves shopping, you don’t even have to carry your purchases on your trip. The 7-Eleven stores offer postal services, so you can send packages home, including food that needs to be refrigerated and delivered within a limited time. They can also help people find specialized services.
These stores are so convenient that “Seven” has become synonymous with “convenience store” and an integral part of the particularly rushed Taiwanese lifestyle. People can send express mail, fax, pay utility fees or parking fines, make appointments, order pre-cooked New Year meals, and find child care service at vacation time!
But I experienced 7-Eleven’s extreme power when I ran into an unexpected situation with the Taiwanese immigration office. I was applying for a resident card as a dependent when I discovered just as I reached the immigration officer’s desk that I had forgotten to bring a copy of my husband’s ID card. My husband was then in China — along with his ID card — and my unmodifiable flight back to China was the next morning.
Seeing my distress, the officer comforted me. “Don’t worry, there is a Seven right across the road,” he said. “Get your husband to take a picture of his ID card and send it to your mobile so you can print it in the store.”
“But I haven't got a U disk with me, or a data line.”
“That’s fine. Just go there and the shop will help you.”
I rushed to the 7-Eleven worried. The staff kindly guided me onto an Internet site called ibon to register an account first. Then my husband uploaded his ID card, keyed in the secret code, and there and then I printed the photo from the store’s terminal!
I saved the cost of a return ticket and solved my problem within minutes. I cheered for Taiwan’s almighty 7-Eleven.