How MUJI conquered China
When Japanese homeware store MUJI opened a Shanghai flagship on December 12 there were queues that stretched down the street. The store brought MUJI’s total in China to 132, second only to its homeland, Japan. That an ‘unbranded’ brand with an incredibly diffuse range of offerings — from bikes to bowls, soups to suitcases — would engender such enthusiasm is peculiar. Partly it’s a good cultural fit; Japanese homes and urban Chinese homes have much in common, including small apartment sizes and similar items used in preparing and eating food. But it’s also the result of an extremely canny approach in China.
Not only did MUJI increase its number of stores in China by 27 this fiscal year, its existing stores also reported sales increases of 20-40 percent. To maximise the foot traffic to cost ratio, Masaaki Kanai, president of Ryohin Keikaku, which owns MUJI, said it opens in “the second best spot in a prime location.” MUJI also disseminates a “Mujigram” manual to maintain consistent management practices, product development processes, store displays and so on. To give employees ownership of these guidelines, they can submit their ideas for improvements and win 50RMB vouchers.
MUJI’s flagships are a new driver of the brand’s success in China. When MUJI opened the first such store in Chengdu, Kanai said, "Even as we integrate with Chinese traditional culture and communities, we continue to promote [MUJI's] 'feel-good life’ ” concept.
The Shanghai flagship is reminiscent of that other four-letter, all-caps emporium, IKEA, with visitors making themselves very much at home across its three floors. In addition to the store’s Japanese restaurant, complete with plastic approximations of the dishes displayed in the window, there are several spaces where people are welcome to linger, including furniture displays, a reading room and a space near the ground floor checkout.
China doesn’t have many public areas where people are allowed to simply linger, let alone on cushy chairs in well heated rooms with free WIFI. Buying products becomes just the final step in the brand experience as people enjoy and aspire to a new level of domestic comfort.
As a verb, MUJI means not only to relax but also to use MUJI products as self expression. Under a “MUJI yourself” sign, customers competed for stamps to apply to totes and cards. What’s expressed is deliberately limited though. MUJI, whose name means ‘no brand’, dictates a kind of bland tastefulness, something reflected in its range of books and magazines, most of which are about lifestyle, travel, art or design.
While it might be thought a disadvantage in China, where the government frequently disseminates xenophobic rhetoric, MUJI emphasises its Japanese origins in information displayed in-store. That's because Chinese consumers strongly correlate Japanese products with quality, even at MUJI's price point, which is not cheap but affordable to many.
Despite domestic brands having made massive advances in quality and innovation, China still struggles to create products that lead their categories worldwide. In a fascinating report by Marketplace, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang complained, “Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen?” Guan Xiyou, CEO of Shenyang Machine Tool Group said, “There are two things that only Chinese people can make. The first is fireworks. The second? Folding fans. Foreigners still can’t make a good folding fan.”
You can't buy fans or fireworks at MUJI, but you can buy almost everything else.
- Article by Sam Gaskin