Back when I started visiting the States about 10 years ago, there was one place that—for some reason—made me feel like I was on a US vacation more than any other. And that was 7-Eleven. No specific one—just any of them. It took me a while to realize why these shiny, open-all-hours moth traps seemed to epitomize my trips across the pond. But then in struck me: they are havens. Sanctuaries to escape the harsh outside world. A light therapy box you can fit in with all your friends. But what makes them so special?
There are over 9,000 7-Eleven stores in the USA. That’s a lot—although nothing compared to the 20k+ found in Japan. Still, they are synonymous with the American consumer landscape, popping up opposite gas stations, in strip malls (a fascinating US phenomenon) or just standing isolated, surrounded by a vast, ominous parking lot. There’s 11 in my city alone.
So what exactly is so good about the 7-Eleven? I think the main reason I love them is because we just don’t have anything like them in the UK. Sure, we have convenience stores, gas station mini marts, etc., but they just don’t feel like a 7-Eleven feels like. There’s always something missing. (Also we obvs don't call them "gas station mini marts".)
The closest I’ve got to feeling like I’m in a 7-Eleven in the UK is that SPAR just off Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, on your way to the train station. You know the one. It’s as offensively bright—and has the same aura of part triumph, part despair—yet… it’s still not quite the same (incredible vegan sandwich selection though).
We need to dig deeper. Maybe it’s the fact that they sell nearly every type of beer imaginable—even many of the smaller California breweries. Having said that, the beer selection in most stores has taken a hit recently to make way for the mindboggling array of hard seltzers, which now take up three quarters of all 7-Elevens. Meanwhile, supermarkets have completely rid themselves of fruit and veg in order to cater for the growing demand for White Claw and the like.
Okay so there’s something else that makes 7-Eleven feel so homey and special. It’s probably not their hot bar, that offers those long, sad-looking hot dogs. Or their signature Slurpees, the first ever mass-produced frozen carbonated beverage. You can get one in a 44-oz container if what you’re really hankering for is a diabetes-inducing, brain-freezing bucket of goop.
Its allure is at least in part down to the name. 7-Eleven: it just rolls off your tongue! So fun. There’s a lot of marketing science behind a good brand rhyme. Although that doesn’t explain why exactly it’s called 7-Eleven: turns out the name was changed from “Tote'm Stores” (don’t ask) when the chain adopted 7am to 11pm opening hours, which was unheard of back in 1946. Nowadays, all stores are open 24/7.
Which really is the crux of the wonder of 7-Eleven: it’s so goddamn reliable. It doesn’t matter whether you have a late-night beer emergency, a mid-trip snack crisis or just a sudden urge for a dry, unpalatable muffin—this gleaming-yet-somehow-still-grubby-looking utopia has you covered.
In a world where so much is changing, it’s assuring to know that a place exists where you can simultaneously buy a variety of energy shots, pay child support and grab a big bag of ice.
And talking of ice, there lies the store’s origin story: Southland Ice Company employee starts selling ice out of the ice house he works at, then thinks it would be a good idea to add essential items like milk and bread to his shop’s portfolio. That was way back in 1927. Good going John Jefferson Green of Dallas, Texas.
Fast forward to present day and it seems 7-Eleven is as strong as ever. It’s had some hiccups in the Asian market, but last year’s acquisition of 3,900 Speedway stores in the US will bring their total number over here to 14,000. Btw, I love that I just linked to Supermarket News.
The closest 7-Eleven to me is on Route 66. That’s not really important information, I just wanted to get the fact I live near Route 66 into the article. Inside this particular store I always get a friendly cashier, with a reminder that a sister or a distant cousin of theirs once visited London.
My love of this convenience store behemoth didn’t start with my local, but it’s certainly a quintessential 7-Eleven, and thus, I adore it. Still not 100% sure why, mind.