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(TOKYO-Relaxnews) – Impressed at the meteoric growth of specialist coffee shops across Japan, the nation’s 45,000 convenience stores are looking to tempt more customers through their doors by pouring mugs of gourmet coffee.

Lawson, the second-largest operator of 24-hour convenience stores in Japan after industry giant 7&i Holdings, has teamed up with Mitsubishi Corp. to install coffee machines in thousands of its outlets.

Mitsubishi largely procures its coffee beans from Brazil and the Nikkei Marketing Journal has reported that the industry anticipates that the number of Lawson outlets selling gourmet coffee by the cup will increase 2.5-fold.

This will bring the convenience store chain into far closer competition with dedicated coffee shops, such as Starbucks, Excelsior Cafe, Tullys and the domestic chain Doutor, which a decade ago had virtually no competition for its affections among coffee-lovers.

Those outlets, however, are not open around the clock, giving 24-hour stores a major advantage. Another plus for operators as this trend takes off is their sheer numbers: one market research company once estimated that every resident of Tokyo lives an average of just 4.5 minutes walk from the nearest convenience store.

Prompted into action by the Lawson-Mitsubishi tie-up, rival chains have announced their own plans. Seven-Eleven, the largest chain in Japan, Circle K Sunkus, Mini Stop and Family Mart all plan to launch new coffee services and related products, such as sandwiches, doughnuts and pastries.

And while Lawson is insisting on having the drinks served by a member of staff – a convenience barrista – the other chains are likely to install self-service machines.

Japan’s 24-hour stores are enjoying booming business at the moment, with 7&i Holdings announcing an increase in sales of 8 percent in the first half of fiscal 2011, which ran until the end of October, in large part driven by rising demand at its 7-11 convenience stores. Japan’s three other main chains have reported similarly strong earnings.

At present, there are some 45,769 convenience stores across Japan, but analysts believe the saturation point is likely to be around the 50,000 mark.

With that in mind, 7&i has revealed plans for 1,350 new stores in the year that started on April 1, while Family Mart will open 800 new outlets. Lawson is aiming for between 800 and 1,000 new stores and Sunkus/Circle K a further 360.