How a Small Dairy Store in Ohio Became One of the Biggest Names in the Japanese Convenience Store Industry

The United States and Japan have a long history of not only economic competition, but also cultural exchange. In the U.S., for example, sushi and anime are popular, while the Japanese have adopted baseball and jazz. If that’s old news to you, there’s one America-to-Japan export that might surprise you: convenience stores. In 1939, J. J. Lawson, the owner of a dairy plant in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, had an idea. Rather than having his milk delivered to people’s houses, why not open a store and let the people come to him? That was the birth of Lawson’s Milk Company. Later, he added other staples like eggs, deli meat, and orange juice. Pretty soon, Lawson’s became what we now know to be a convenience store. By 1985, Lawson’s was sold to Dairy Mart. It would seem that the sale would be the end of Lawson’s, but it wasn’t. The Lawson name lived on in Japan, where, in 1975, the company partnered with Japanese retailer Daiei to open a franchise in Toyonaka City. While Daiei was already a major player in Japan’s supermarket business, the concept of a “convenience store”was still new to the country. Because Japan, with its densely packed cities and increasing taste for modernization, was an ideal environment for the convenience store model, Lawson took off. Today, Lawson has over 14,000 stores in Japan and is the third largest convenience store brand after 7-Eleven and a local rival called FamilyMart. For perspective, there are only around 10,000 7-Elevens in the United States and Canada combined. Japanese convenience stores have the most sophisticated distribution system in the world, with the average store receiving a food delivery every 8 hours. While it’s unclear whether Lawson’s will ever return to Ohio, Buckeyes think it’s pretty cool that their hometown dairy is the latest rage in Japan.