Yata Wang visits a convenience store each day for breakfast. He returns after lunch for some sweets. Then afternoon tea. Then a late-night snack.
'Convenience stores are like braised pork rice,' said Mr. Wang, a Taipei art vendor. 'They are everywhere in Taiwan but you still keep longing for their flavor.'
Such ardent, high-frequency patronage is the norm here -- and no wonder. Taiwan's convenience stores are some of the most convenient in the world.
Beyond the staple snacks, they provide a ballooning array of services including dry cleaning, train and concert ticket reservations, traffic fine and utility payment, hot sit-down meals, mail drop-off and book pickup. They also deliver everything from refrigerators to multicourse banquets that feature fatty pork stacked in a pile, half a dozen varieties of chicken feet and a nearly 8-pound suckling pig that rotates on a battery-powered spit.
Convenience stores jostle shoulder to shoulder in urban areas like Taipei. But when you climb Alishan Mountain or fly to the remote Taiwanese islands of Penghu, you'll find at least a few of the gleaming storefronts that greet you with a dual assault of a singsong electronic door chime and clerks repeating, 'Huanying guanglin, huanying guanglin' ('welcome, welcome') each time a foot crosses the threshold.
The profusion of convenience stores in Taiwan's landscape has resulted in a deep fervor among the populace. So much so that hundreds of people paid up to $46 a seat at a Taipei theater this year to see a musical about 7-Eleven Taiwan's mascot, Open-Chan (His name derives from 7-Eleven's 24-hour operation).
The company trumpets Open-Chan, an extraterrestrial dog from the planet Open, as 'the first cartoon spokesperson in the convenience retailing industry of Taiwan.' He also has a music album, shopping mall and theme park to his name.
The 7-Eleven mascot recently added musicals to his repertoire with 'The Great Adventure of the Magical Planet.' In the show, Open-Chan sashays with his sidekicks to lyrics such as, 'The magic words are Open, Open, Open.'
'I just love Open-Chan so much,' said Huang Shulin, a Taipei teacher, at one of the shows. 'I collect everything with his face on it. Dolls. Pens.'
While retailer freebies are often regarded as low-grade throwaways, those from Taiwan's convenience stores have ascended to higher echelons of prestige.
On a Friday evening, Taipei businessman Richard Kao bought armloads of food at a 7-Eleven to collect enough stickers to earn a limited-edition alarm clock prize.
'I want 20 of the clocks,' Mr. Kao told the clerk. 'I will buy as much stuff as needed to get them.'
Mr. Kao said he planned to give the clocks as gifts to his business clients.
'This is a meaningful gift,' he said. 'If you are willing to collect convenience store stickers for someone, it shows you really care.'
Why Taiwan's people like convenience stores so much remains in dispute. One argument says the fascination dates back to the Taiwanese general store, a fixture of life before the island became a modern economic powerhouse. Others say it comes from the busy Taiwanese lifestyle, giving rise to workaholic lonely hearts who don't know how to cook.
'A lot of our customers are single working women,' said Wang Fei-Chen, 7-Eleven Taiwan's chief merchandiser in the fresh food department.
Yen-Fen Tseng, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, said that convenience stores are so popular in Taiwan because they have ingrained themselves as a part of the communities in each neighborhood.
'Convenience stores function as a community entrance,' she said. 'They are comparable to the village temple in days of yore.'
She adds that aversion to walking also may play a role as people want everything they need within a few footsteps. 'People really hate walking here.'
Whatever the reason, they are a cultural fixture that resonates. A Taiwan Family Mart video of elementary school children pretending to work as convenience store clerks quickly went viral in March, racking up more than 2.5 million views.
Taiwan's major convenience store chains have also added seating areas in recent years to try to keep their customers around longer. This has resulted in them becoming popular hangouts, for everyone from suited businesspeople conducting meetings, to students siphoning off the free Wi-Fi to watch soap operas, to late night clubbers taking a breather to find their second wind. Stores are open 24 hours every day.
'Unlike coffee shops, they won't shoo you away if you stay too long,' said Lin May-jun, an insurance saleswoman who regularly entertains potential customers at a 7-Eleven in Taipei.
With the passion for convenience stores in Taiwan, one might think it is easy enough to do business. But insiders say competition is cutthroat, margins are thin and innovations are copied rapidly.
'We aren't Apple, we can't patent our ideas,' said Alex Chao, an administrative manager of Taiwan's third-largest convenience-store chain, Hi-Life. 'We came up with the idea of attaching a plastic lid to the top of the pot of guandongzhu, (a popular snack of bite-sized meats and vegetables simmering in hot broth) to keep out the dust. Now everyone has lids.'
There is also a constant battle of keeping up with the Joneses in terms of offerings and convenience. When 7-Eleven Taiwan announced it would sell customized flat-screen TVs last year, Family Mart quickly launched its own sets.
'We are also making inquiries into TVs,' said Mr. Chao, of Hi-Life.
While Taiwan's convenience stores are always getting more convenient, there are limits.
'At one point, we offered custom-made breakfast sandwiches cooked on the spot,' said Mr. Chao. 'But we had to stop that. People liked them so much that the lines got really long. And then it was no longer convenient.'