The Culture of Convenience

A GUIDE TO TAIWANESE CONVENIENCE STORES

The true foundation of Taiwanese society boils down to the welcoming jingle and woosh of AC as you step through the automatic doors of a convenience store.

You might think you know convenience stores. But you don’t really know the meaning of convenience until you’ve experienced a Taiwanese convenience store. If you’ve been to Japan, you might have some idea. But Taiwan has taken it to the next level.

First thing’s first. 7-Elevens in Taiwan are not the same as 7-Elevens in America. Besides the fact that they share the same name, and that 7-Elevens in Taiwan do have slurpees, they are completely different stores that sell different things (not just localized versions of the same stuff). Technically, 7-Elevens in Taiwan are owned and managed by Uni-President Enterprises Corporation. But most importantly, they aren’t sad and somewhat sketchy gas station marts. They are oasis from heat and hunger and dehydration dotted around the island.

Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the culture of convenience in Taiwan.

There are several chains of convenience stores in Taiwan. The biggest one is 7-Eleven (often just called “seven” by locals), followed by FamilyMart (a Japanese chain), Hi-Mart (a Taiwanese chain) and OK Mart (branch off from Circle K). Taiwan has the highest density per capita of convenience stores in the world. There are over 10,000 stores, about one for every 2,300 people. If you take a picture on a random street in Taipei, chances are, you’ll spot at least a couple stores in the background. Sometimes there are two 7-Elevens facing each other. Even in small towns like Taitung, you can count on there being a 7-Eleven at the corner of every other intersection.

convenience

Taiwanese convenience stores are probably the most reliable thing in the world. For one, you’re never more than walking distance from the nearest one (ok fine, if you’re on a tea farm in the mountains, it might be a long walk…but still!). They are on the boulevards and in the alleys, as well as in MRT stations, airports, hospitals, corporate buildings, apartment complexes, even schools! Also, they are open 24/7, rain or shine, even during typhoons. It’s a one stop shop for anything you might need at 3am, and plenty of things you might not need, too. It’s the perfect place to hide out from the afternoon downpour. Even if the downpour lasts a few hours (it likely will).

The convenience store market may be saturated, but Taiwanese society is already fully reliant on the network of convenience stores. As in, I’m fairly sure that society would instantly collapse if this system disappeared.

oden

The first thing you’ll notice when stepping into a convenience store, besides the beloved jingles (seriously, someone even remixed one!), is the herbal smell of tea eggs. They're always stewing away, alongside Japanese oden, steamed buns, hot dogs…

And this is only the hot food. But before we get into what else you can buy, let’s sample of things you can do at a typical Taiwanese convenience store:

  • Pick up online orders (a lot of people prefer to pay in cash rather than online)
  • Pick up packages (they had this down WAYY before Amazon lockers, you can get anything sent to your closest convenience store and they’ll sign for you)
  • Buy concert tickets (why go online when there’s ticket booths every block?)
  • Pay phone bills (save on postage, just go down the street)
  • Buy prepaid phone cards, or refill them (this is actually v useful for visitors…not just for locals in need of burner phones…)
  • Check your blood pressure (idk I saw one before, didn’t question it)
  • Send things locally (yes, it’s like an actual network of convenience stores where you can send something from a 7-Eleven in Taipei to one in Kaohsiung (way more open hours than any post office for sure!)
  • Make copies and print things (it’s like a built-in FedEx)
  • Heat things (they have a microwave)
  • Make cup noodles (you can buy them and eat them in the store with hot water readily available)
  • Do your business (most of them have bathrooms)
  • Dine in (many have seating areas too, and since you can already heat up what you bought, might as well settle in)
  • Refill EasyCards (& pay with them too)
  • Pick up (& return) library books
  • Pay parking fines (I bet it’s a more pleasant experience than the LADOT website…)
  • Buy train tickets (another actual useful thing for visitors)
  • Cool off (you laugh now, but wait till you meet tropical humidity…)
  • Use free wifi (if anyone still travels without buying a data package these days - it’d be a waste of money because between convenience stores and MRT stations, you can basically have free wifi anywhere in Taipei)
  • Get fresh coffee (yes, they actually market themselves as “cafés” too)
  • Use an ATM (in case you run out of cash in the middle of a night market, just dash into the nearest convenience store!)
  • Collect swag (Taiwan is obsessed with stamp cards, collecting stickers, earning points…whatever it takes to redeem a reward. And convenience stores have totally mastered the art of capitalizing on this. They strike up valuable partnerships with brands like Sanrio to run promos for exclusive collectables. If you think people can’t spend 1000NT at a convenience store, think again)

Moving on to the goods. Whether you’re looking for a bag of chips or disposable underwear or even on occasion a cheap TV, you’d be surprised how much they can pack into a tiny (or sometimes not so tiny) store.

drinks

DRINKS

Your usual spread of Asian iced teas, aka more varieties than you would ever care to imagine. Plus juices, yogurt drinks, flavored milks, iced coffees and soda (a section that is dwarfed by the tea). Cartons and small bottles are in the open refrigerator areas, while typical bottles and cans are in the doored refrigerators (no idea why). And then of course there’s always the beer section, which has the classic “Taiwan Beer” as well as fruity variations that are actually not bad (if you like juice, at least).

If you like things sweet, go for lemon black tea or honey jasmine. If you are a fan of Starbucks bottled frapuccinos, go for the navy blue cylindrical 純粹喝 iced latte. It literally tastes like coffee ice cream. If you want something very local, grab some green tea yakult (it’s good for digestion) or papaya milk. If you want to try a fruity beer, go for pineapple. Or mango (but actually get pineapple). If you’re looking for Gatorade, try the local brand Supau. Everything should be in the 15-30NT range.

snacks

SNACKS

Chips, crackers, cookies, candy, you name it, they have it. Sure, you might spot some familiar names like Doritos or Oreos, but the flavors certainly will be foreign. Be adventurous. Pick up some seaweed flavored Lays. Or don’t. And just head to the candy section and buy every flavor of Hi-Chew you can find, as well as other coveted Asian candies that cost a fortune in the US. I’ll just go ahead and warn you that there is a Japanese/Korean chocolate brand called Ghana which is totally not meant to be insensitive but definitely comes across as questionable.

noodles

INSTANT NOODLES

You really can’t go wrong. This is life changing compared to the typical Nissin or Maruchan you buy in 48 packs at Costco. Hint: if there aren’t separate packets you need to open before adding in the water, it’s probably not gonna be life changing. Usually, Taiwanese brands have two packets, one with powder flavor and another with a sauce or oil (sesame oil, chili oil, soy sauce, shallots, etc). There’s brands that specialize in “dry” noodles (where you drain the water before mixing in the add ins, and sometimes come with a separate soup packet and second bowl). There’s a brand that boasts double the noodles (literally, you get two disks of noodles instead of one). But if you want the most reliable one, go for the minced pork flavor of One More Cup. You’re gonna want to buy a few more cups for sure;)

fridge

FROM THE FRIDGE

There’s everything from salads to fruit cups to cold sesame noodles to curry rice (& other packaged meals that the clerk will kindly heat for you). But really all you need are the pre-packaged onigiri (the triangle rice balls). There’s at least a dozen flavors so you can practically live on this stuff.

Also, pudding. The classic 統一 pudding that is light yellow with dark brown caramel at the bottom. No other brand comes close to matching the flavor and no one knows why. It got to the point where one time it was recalled for a week and as soon as it hit shelves again, it immediately sold out.

frozen

FROZEN TREATS

When it’s a million degrees outside, the little ice cream freezer is your best friend. The pudding popsicle tastes like the real stuff. Also, the caramel wafer-enrobed ice cream is 👌.

& EVERYTHING ELSE

On top of all the edible stuff, there’s also anything else you could possibly need. Magazines and newspapers, household items, stationary, emergency clothes (think plain t-shirts, socks, etc), umbrellas (lifesavers for sure), toiletries, bags of rice, face masks, cleaning supplies, kitchen utensils, bug spray, medication, electronic accessories, etc etc etc.

& A COUPLE PROTIPS

  • Head to the airport an hour early and enjoy your last meal in the airport food court. Don’t worry, the prices are not surged like they are in American airports. While you’re there, stock up at the 7-Eleven for the plane ride. Just remember no liquids! Anything else can go with you on the plane (but fruit and anything with meat have to be eaten on the plane – can’t bring that back with you!)
  • As soon as you hear about a typhoon, if you are staying at an apartment (anything that isn’t a hotel, etc) go to any convenience store and stock up on a couple big 2L bottles of water just in case. And some ramen. And beer. Those tend to be the things that run out first as people stockpile for their days off.

So what’s the cost of convenience? Just a few minutes of your time and a tap of your EasyCard actually. Things are fairly priced. Sure, it might be cheaper to grab fruit from a traditional market or to get big packs of pudding from a supermarket. But the difference is marginal, so it’s worth it for the convenience. And once you leave, you’ll wish home embraced Taiwan’s culture of convenience too.

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