Convenience store operator FamilyMart Co. said Thursday it will allow its franchise owners across Japan to shorten operating hours from March in a bid to address a severe labor shortage during late-night hours.

Under the new policy covering nearly 16,000 stores, franchise owners can shut down part of or throughout the window between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. if they notify the headquarters of their wish in advance.

"It is up to each of our franchise owners to make a decision" to end the 24-hour operations, FamilyMart President Takashi Sawada said at a press conference in Tokyo.

Store owners who want to cut operating hours can also choose to do it every day or only on Sundays, the company said.

Meanwhile, FamilyMart will raise its monthly incentive to 120,000 yen ($1,100) from 100,000 yen for stores that keep their around-the-clock operation.

The move came after rival Seven-Eleven Japan Co. started cutting operating hours at eight stores this month as part of efforts to mitigate labor shortage.

"We want to support shop owners as much as possible, as it is a fact that some shops are suffering from a labor shortage, rising labor costs and low profitability," Sawada added.

"We have to speed up our support for our outlets as early as possible," Sawada said.

However, the company said it is unknown how many stores will join the new business operating hour policy.

The chain operator started a trial for shorter open hours in June with currently more than 600 outlets in designated areas, but the company decided to expand the policy nationwide before closely studying the trial results.

More details of new business policy will be delivered by March, the company said.

About 7,000 outlets, nearly a half of the FamilyMart stores in Japan, said they are interested in shorter operating hours, a company survey conducted in June showed.

FamilyMart also said it will start a voluntary early retirement program to reduce 800 jobs or 10 percent of the total personnel working at the franchiser by February as part of restructuring efforts.

Lawson Inc., another major convenience store operator in Japan, does not require franchise owners to open for 24 hours, with about 100 outlets closed at some time during the day.

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