You might be hard pressed to find a DMIte who remembers my beloved 80′s tween shopping destination UNITS clothing boutique. I say this only because I am still feeling the sting from the face palm I did when a group of them didn’t get my Ogre Revenge of the Nerds “NEEEEEERDS” impression. Really, they’ve never seen the movie. Really?!? I began to reminisce about UNITS when one of my coworkers asked me to think about “a great retail experience.” I couldn’t really think of a “retail experience” that he could identify with or one that was worthy of talking about. In the DC area I shop at stores like Nordstrom RACK at the discount mall in the suburbs; it hasn’t quite perfected the coveted customer service model “The Nordstrom Way” that every brand aspires to have.
After discussing my concerns with him, he began to probe about what brands I like. Head Porter, Asos, House of Creed, basically all “niche” brands. He smirked and twilled a $3 pen that I had given him a few months back. It’s a pen that if he misplaces he’ll search every conference room, go from desk to desk rifling through co-workers pen cubbies, and shake down people that walk by (okay, I’m exaggerating on that one but you get the idea). He was right though. There IS a store I visit every single time I go to New York, even if it forces my friends to trek over from their beloved Brooklyn neighborhoods to have brunch in the city. I will not leave NYC without having a quick stop in to pick up some paper supplies and a few pens. Behold Muji.
Those unfamiliar with Muji, it’s considered a lifestyle brand in Japan, offering everything from house wares to office supplies to dry groceries. I was first exposed to this in 2004 when I moved to a tiny village in Niigata, Japan, many miles away from any fluent English speaking person. What’s a girl to do when her level of Japanese is laughable? I began to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies; shopping. Train stations in Japan are duel purpose, a place to catch a train and a shopping center, it is here where I found my shopping Mecca. I lost all my inhibitions I had been feeling as a foreigner in a foreign land, and I WENT FOR IT. Purchasing kitchen tools I didn’t even know the utility for, pens of different colors and styles, some converse looking shoes, I even purchased a new futon set…with the bedding to boot. True to the Japanese customer service way, they offered to deliver the goods (at no extra charge) in three days, but I insisted on taking my goods with. With Muji goods in hand, that evening I had the longest trek from the train station to my beloved apartment, working arm muscles I did not know existed.
What is it about Muji that turns me into a girl who has to have it now? How does one tiny pen transform a seemingly reserved and mild tempered guy into Ogre dangling nerds from frat house balconies? It’s fascinating actually, because the products themselves are recognizable even though they are logo less and are quite simple in design. It’s actually the absence of branding that makes Muji so great. It’s a brand that not only has a great corporate mission; use every material, use quality materials, don’t harm the environment, but it creates products that are both aesthetically pleasing and great to use. When placed all under one roof the catalog of products translates to a brand experience that is unmatched. The environment is muted with the Muji color palette of white, black, beige, and grey. Each section of the store leads perfectly into the next with clear packaging or none at all creating a highly emotional and Zen like brand experience. Exactly what Muji president Masaaki Kanai aspires to create for the Muji retail experience, instead of relying on imagery and text to dictate the brand experience, he allows the collective of products to create an atmosphere that reflects the brand, tapping into the Japanese design concept of “ma.”
Muji’s approach to retail space, product design, and digital experiences (checkout their iPad apps) strategy is truly innovate. While it’s still very “Japanese” feeling, it’s not taking advantage of its Japanese heritage. It isn’t exploiting the old way of life in Japan, instead it exploits the idea of Kanketsu but on a much more modern way. Perhaps they’ve been so successful because they really have little to no competitors creating this same brand experience. For a few years there was a Head Porter shop in Soho, which product wise took the same approach. However retail wise it was a “clean” space, but on the top floor over a crowded Stussy store. Ikea is commonly compared to Muji, mostly because of the minimalist and Bauhaus-isque design. Yet you go into an Ikea and you feel like you’re in a warehouse with rooms and screaming kids and a test floor showroom. You go to Muji and it’s clean, the music is low, the shoppers speak in whispers, and carefully put back any product they may have pulled down from the shelves. Muji’s brand values are simplicity, moderation, humility and self-restraint all which are felt when you walk into one of their stores. If you have yet to experience this brand, I highly encourage you to visit one of the shops in NYC or overseas. Or if you happen to pop into the office, ask Jeremy to borrow his pen, just don’t forget to give it back!