Muji colours outside the lines

Muji's North American president on the retail strategy that's helping the Japanese brand become a global phenomenon.

mujicolour

Muji’s Canadian flagship store is a sweet feast for the eyes  there are rows and rows of pens as bright as M&M’s, beanbag chairs that look like inflated marshmallows and diffusers pumping out little clouds that look like cotton candy suspended in mid-air.

Toru Akita

With its mix of colourful offerings the Japanese retailer has slowly, yet steadily built its presence in the Great White North since opening its first Canadian location in downtown Toronto in November 2014. Since then, Muji, which sells everything from shirts to sheets to spoons, has expanded to five stores in Ontario and three in Vancouver.

While not revealing specifics, Toru Akita, Muji’s North American president (right), says the retailer plans to expand current Canadian stores and add new locations in the next few years. Its parent company, which started out as a private brand with nine household and 31 food products in 1980 before opening its first Muji store three years later, is also considering opening a grocery store in Canada. But first, the retailer will add more food options to its current Canadian stores, explained Akita in an email interview with strategy, translated from Japanese.

“We believe that Muji’s philosophy is very compatible with Canadian customers, as many of them value nature and lifestyle,” said Akita. “We consider Canada as a potentially very important market for us in the future. Customers in Canada seem to appreciate the unique store environment we offer, and the comfortable, relaxing atmosphere created by the use of natural materials.”

Indeed, the retailer has proved so popular in Canada that some of its stores, including the flagship across from the Eaton Centre in Toronto, have expanded. The original 5,658 square feet store was shuttered and a new 19,110 square feet store was opened late last year, making it the biggest Muji store outside of Asia. The most popular item is the Ultrasonic Aroma Diffuser, which customers can learn more about at the flagship’s Aroma Bar. Akita attributes the popularity of the diffuser to the Aroma Bar  allowing customers to touch, feel and smell the diffuser at work before buying.

The two-storey flagship attracts people of all ages and backgrounds as they take in the sights and smells of the space that appears to be the love child of IKEA and Uniqlo stores, but on a more intimate scale. Muji, which translates as “no-brand quality goods,” exclusively sells its own store brand at prices akin to its Swedish and Japanese rivals.

“The flagship store’s strategy is to offer a unique, interactive store environment where customers can find and experience products and services to help them create a pleasant, comfortable lifestyle. More than a retail store, it should be a place that fosters communication and connections between Muji, customers, local communities, and society in general,” said Akita. 

mujibag

1989

While there is an emphasis on the in-store experience, Canadian consumers can make purchases via Muji’s American ecommerce site, but a Canadian-specific online store will be launched soon, added Akita.

Long before ecommerce was a must-have for retailers, the first Muji store (right) opened in the upscale Aoyama neighbourhood in Tokyo in 1983. The emphasis on the in-store experience has since remained top of mind, according to Akita.

“Our store design concept has not changed since the first Muji store opened,” said the Muji executive. “Raw and natural materials such as wood, stone and iron are part of the store environment, and our products are also made using natural materials. As such, the sales floor and the products are in perfect harmony. We believe that Muji’s philosophy can be felt through the wide selection of products found inside our stores, and this ‘way of living’ cannot be expressed entirely online.”

mujientrance

As such, the downtown Toronto store features natural materials, including wood and glass. The company has also added local touches, such as coffee from Toronto roaster, De Mello Palheta (below), and it offers several ways to “Muji Yourself” via customization of products via embroidery, stamps, sticker printing, and alterations.

mujicafe

mujiclothesThe retailer that started with a single Tokyo store now boasts close to 1,000 outlets around the globe, including Canada and the U.S., as well as Ireland, Thailand and Australia. It has made some small changes for the North American market, but aims to offer a consistent experience for customers, wherever they may be.

Ryohin Keikaku Co., which owns Muji, is on track to post a 11.8%  increase in operating revenue to 424.3 billion yen ($3.77 billion USD) for the year through February 2019, according to Nikkei Asian Review. Thirty-six years after its debut Muji’s strategy of adding some local flavour while sticking to its now iconic minimalist aesthetic has proven popular throughout Japan and well beyond.

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