Wanted: Housewives to beat staff crunch at Japan's FamilyMart

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s second-largest convenience store chain hopes it has found an answer to its labor problems - housewives.

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FamilyMart plans to hire 100,000 for part-time jobs over the next two years as it struggles to cope with a staffing crunch across most of its convenience stores, its president, Takashi Sawada, told Reuters on Friday.

Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, known as “conbini”, typically rely on large numbers of part-time workers to help run the show, but a shrinking population has left them in the lurch. The country’s unemployment rate is near a two-decade low while the jobs-to-applicants ratio is at a 43-year high.

Boosting the role of working women is an important plank of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to address labor shortages.

The key will be offering flexible working hours in a country where long working days are common, FamilyMart’s Sawada says.

“If we offer flexibility we will be able to hire many, many more [housewives],” he said. “They really take to the work and stay with us for long periods of time.”

The conbini operator, part of FamilyMart UNY Holdings 8028.T, is also moving to make it easier for housewives to take on supervisory positions, he added.

The number of services offered at conbini has ballooned in recent years, with buyers able to pick up their internet shopping, a morning coffee and pay household bills in the store, all of which has added to the workload for store staff.

Around 80 percent of FamilyMart stores are suffering from labor shortages, a company survey of 12,000 stores found.

With the number of parcels arriving in store doubling in the past year, complaints from dissatisfied customers have also risen, Sawada said.

To address these concerns, FamilyMart has taken measures such as replacing the manual for handling deliveries, which ran to more than 100 pages, with an illustrated 10-page version.

As society ages, having staff who are on hand to deal with customers will help maintain the industry’s position as indispensable to consumers’ everyday lives, Sawada said.

"I think there's limits to Amazon Go," said Sawada, referring to the internet retailer Amazon's AMZN.O bricks-and-mortar store which does away with cash registers, using sensors instead to detect purchases and for automatic billing.

“We will succeed by offering a human touch.”

FamilyMart has said it expects its net profit to more than double to 60 billion yen ($537.83 million) in four years from 24 billion yen in the current fiscal year. To drive this growth, it is converting its Circle K and Sunkus stores into FamilyMart stores, with 2,000 conversions completed since September.

FamilyMart UNY, formed last year from the merger with UNY Group to become the No.2 convenience store operator behind Seven & i Holdings Co 3382.T, brought in Sawada to head the post-merger conbini business. He has previously worked at trading house Itochu Corp 8001.T - FamilyMart's top shareholder - and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing 9983.T.

Reporting by Sam Nussey and Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by Himani Sarkar