7-11 Free Slurpee Day 2012: What the Rise and Fall of the Slurpee Says About America vs. China

On Wednesday (July 11), 7-11 is offering free 7.11-ounce slurpees from 11 AM to 7 PM to celebrate its 85th birthday.

As the quintessential convenience store, 7-11 has provided quick, essential goods for Americans on-the-go since the early 20th century. Moreover, as the stores mostly serve urban consumers in the U.S. today, 7-11 has become increasingly popular in rapidly urbanizing Asia.

Convenience stores were established to serve a more mobile, busy life in the United States. In 1927, the convenience stores began as outgrowths of “mom-and-pop” neighborhood grocery stores, the “ice house” from the pre-refrigeration days, and the delicatessen. Born in Dallas, Texas, the Southland Ice Company responded to the need for a store stocked with essential goods that would stay open from 7 AM to 11 PM, 7 days a week. This concept morphed into 7-11, which  serves customers 24/7.

These stores took off only post-WWII. As Americans bought more cars and moved into suburbia, they found that these newly developed areas lacked major shopping centers and therefore went to convenience stores for their needs. While supermarkets became the go-to for the nuclear family, convenience stores still served those dual-income families with little time to spend at massive grocery stores.

Stores like 7-11 moved into high-traffic areas, such as cities and highways. In the 1970s, more states began approving self-service gasoline stations, prompting the growth of convenience stores that offered gasoline. Today, 80% of all convenience stores sell gasoline and account for 80% of gas sales in the U.S. With sister stores such as Movie Quick, a video rental service, and Citgo, a gasoline provider, 7-11 caters to a quick-moving, city-going consumer base.

Today, convenience stores offer basic groceries, toiletries, alcoholic and soft drinks, tobacco products, newspapers and magazines, and snacks. City rovers who need to pick up something quick on their way to work will stop by 7-11 for a bagel; high school kids walking back from school will buy a slurpee as an afternoon treat. They have evolved into creatures of the urban environment: like cities themselves, convenience stores charge more for the cost of convenience.

Although 7-11 used to be ubiquitous in the U.S., the company that has stood for convenience stores has completely abandoned the Midwest and Southwest. Now, they have flooded Asia. Since the Japanese Seven & I Holding’s saved 7-11 from bankruptcy in 1987, the convenience store has become the Starbucks of Asia. Each country has given a unique spin to the store: China serves hot foods such as steamed buns and not brand items such as slurpees; Japan has expanded 7-11’s to include music, DVD’s, video games, and holiday gifts; Singapore loves 7-11 and other convenience stores that provide international goods for the cosmopolitan city-state; Taiwan has allowed 7-11 to collect city parking fees, utility bills, driving fines, credit card payments, and other financial and government payments because they’re so popular.

What does the decline of 7-11 in the U.S. and the rise in Asia reflect about global economics and politics? Urban growth in the U.S. has slowed down, but cities continue to flourish as rural populations migrate to economically powerful cities in Asia. While Detroit is on the verge of bankruptcy and Miami is suffering from the housing crisis, Asian urban centers are developing at the fastest pace in the world. While the most urbanization will be in Africa in the future, Asia will continue to urbanize. Maybe 7-11 will move to Africa next.

In any case, when you get your free Slurpee today, remember what 7-11 means to the U.S. and to the world.