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Muji Creates A Blueprint For Expanding In The U.S.

Stamps, embroidery, and minimalist products are coming to a Muji near you.

The Japanese retailer Muji opened its first American store a decade ago. In the years since, it has steadily introduced shoppers to minimalist products that are affordable enough for penny-pinching college kids yet stylish enough to bait design snobs. Now the company is intent on bringing even more people into the cult of Muji. The newest outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, inks the blueprint for achieving that goal.

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“We don’t want to just have one store per state; we want to have several stores per state,” Toru Tsunoda, president of Muji’s U.S. operations, told Co.Design through a translator.

[Photo: Lucas Roy]
Future Muji stores in the United States will look a lot like the Williamsburg location. While it isn’t terribly different from the company’s other storefronts around the world, it’s a departure from the intimate shops longtime American customers of Muji are accustomed to. Moving forward, the brand is supersizing itself for the U.S market. Think more products and larger spaces–a big-box store with design cred.

Done up in reclaimed wood, exposed steel, and concrete, the store’s architecture communicates the brand’s interest in sustainability and raw materials. (Muji’s products are often made from unbleached cotton, linen, rattan, and wood, and the color palettes are neutral.) Large windows tease passersby to the wealth of products on offer: apparel, stationary, bed linens, furniture, storage and organizational boxes, housewares, and packaged snacks.

[Photo: Lucas Roy]
The store also includes a number of services only available by coming into the physical space: an embroidery station where, for $3, customers can emblazon any textile item purchased at Muji with over 300 graphics, like fruit, boats, lettering, bikes, and more; a complimentary gift-wrapping station that seals paper packages with stitching; and a free stamp station that invites people to decorate paper goods with a number of symbols, including a couple of Brooklyn specific things, like the Brooklyn Bridge (which is likely to be a hit with tourists who probably won’t be picking up a toilet-bowl brush when they come in).

These services aren’t new, but they are currently limited to only a few stores. Proven to be crowd-pleasers, they will now appear in new Muji locations moving forward. The Williamsburg shop is 7,500 square feet and sells 3,500 different products, and Muji plans to make future locations at least this large–if not larger–and offer the same deep catalog of goods. By comparison, the first Muji in America–located in SoHo–was 3,200 square feet and sold 2,000 products. In the past, the biggest hurdle for the company–which sells even more products in its native Japan–was making its goods adhere to U.S. regulations; food was an especially challenging category. Now with a decade under its belt, it’s learned how to better navigate the terrain.

[Photo: Lucas Roy]
“We perceive the retail store to be the most important element in [Muji’s sales],” Tsunoda says. “What’s challenging is that a lot of [companies] are closing their retail locations. We’re trying to do something different. We’re trying to expand to more locations.”

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Muji has been profitable for the past few years and in Japan–which accounts for 60% of the company’s sales–retail has been growing. Overseas sales–which are viewed as a driver of growth by the brand–dipped this summer. As of now, the top markets outside of Japan are China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Tsunoda hopes the United States–which currently outpaces European markets in sales–will eventually overtake Korea.

But for Muji to expand in the United States, the company needs to offer as many products as it can, open stores in highly trafficked areas, train employees to offer strong customer service, and provide experiences that bring people to the stores, Tsunoda says. He also realizes that e-commerce is important and wants to grow online sales–which account for 3% to 4% of purchases in the U.S.–up to 7% in the next three years. It’s a conservative goal considering that quarterly e-commerce sales account for about 9% of total retail sales and the proportion is growing, according to a U.S. Census report. Time will tell if Muji’s strategy will work, but Tsunoda seems confident that it will.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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