Though Muji opened its second flagship store in the U.S. last week — a 10,000-square-foot shop on Boston’s Newbury Street, its second after opening its Fifth Avenue flagship in 2015 — the Japanese retailer is going slow and steady with its expansion strategy in North America.
The newest additions add to the more than 300 brick-and-mortar stores Muji has across 24 countries, only 13 of which are located in the U.S. Despite what appears to be an aggressive expansion strategy, Ichigo Sugiura, marketing and public relations associate for Muji USA, said the company is not being hasty in launching in new spaces and instead focusing on how to best tailor each individual store to its respective community.
In anticipation of its Boston opening, Muji held a pop-up store a short walk from the flagship to raise brand awareness for the store’s unique take on lifestyle goods, which is developing a cult following. Just a few weeks before opening its Boston location, Muji opened its sixth store on the West Coast, in Santa Anita, California. It currently operates stores in four states, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California — but shoppers across the country can purchase products online, on Muji’s mobile app and in select airport shops.
“We are not in a rush to expand the market in the U.S.,” Sugiura said. “We are actually very careful with expanding. Our strategy, whenever we open a new store, is to make sure that it will provide good service for the customer first.”
Muji was founded in Japan in 1980 and is short for “Mujirushi Ryōhin” which translates to “no-brand quality goods.” Despite appearances, the brand claims it is not minimalist and operates on an ethos of inclusivity by offering a wide array of quality generic goods at accessible prices.
The company touts its ability to keep costs low by being conscious of waste in its material selection, production processes and packaging. Part of its strategy involves global supply chain sourcing that supports sustainability efforts, particularly in using organic cotton for apparel.
“[Muji is] a new concept that seems to also have a lot of very accessible price points. That is often a great formula for success in a crowded U.S. retail landscape,” Sucharita Mulpuru, chief retail strategist at Shoptalk, said. “Some of the concepts that don’t take off in the U.S. often are often mispriced. If they are resonating, they probably have a price-value equation particularly with millennials in urban markets that is attractive.”
Part of what makes Muji so appealing is its simple take on home goods. (A shopper told Boston University’s student newspaper that it reminded him of “Uniqlo meets an IKEA.”) Most stores offer stationary, dishware and apparel, as well as aroma bars, where shoppers can create their own scents. And while Sugiura said Muji is very different from either an IKEA or Uniqlo, it has started to drive a similar fervor, with a swelling base of North American fans.
What also gives Muji edge over stores like Uniqlo is that it’s had the ability to learn from their mistakes. Though Uniqlo expanded at an impressive rate, now with more than 1,700 stores in 17 countries, it quietly shuttered five stores in major shopping malls in the U.S. last year, pointing to financial challenges in the U.S.
Instead, Muji is creating a differentiated take on retail that is appealing with consumers in North America. In the apparel category, Muji stresses consistency. “We are not like other fast fashion companies that have different styles and fashion trends every year. Our signature is that, every year, you can find the exact same thing,” Sugiura said.
Claire Tsai, senior marketing manager at Muji USA, said part of what makes the brand so enticing is an inclusive atmosphere focused on product design that is simple and functional. “It’s not restrictive, it’s not luxury design. It’s broad and simple. It’s not trying to be situated to one kind of category, but open to any type of lifestyle.”