Muji’s Mighty Magic

The Muji flagship opened in Plaza Singapura last Friday, occupying the 1,896-sq-m expanse that was vacated by the doomed John Little’s last year. Is the Japanese specialty store set to take the place of traditional department stores, such as Tangs and Metro, which have become increasingly lacklustre?

Muji PS pic 1Muji’s new flagship store at Plaza Singaura

Muji is many things to many people. To some, it is a fashion store. To others, it’s a beauty bar, and, many still, a furniture seller. There also are those who consider it a mini-market. If you visit its new flagship store, it’s manifestly all of the above and more, so much so that it, despite its comparative smallness, easily surpasses the offering of any department store in Singapore today.

This is Muji you’ve not seen before. Not even the ION Orchard store, already considered sterling by so many of its fans, is as expansive, wide-ranging, or atmospheric. This is Muji built on some performance-enhancing magic bullet. It is stocked to the rafters to entice, to arouse, and, ultimately, to encourage spending.

That Muji is able to do all this with merchandise that, for some, is just too bashful in design is testament to the brand’s skill at pulling deceptively simple things into a rather grand whole. There’s a sense of authenticity—an unabashed Japaneseness—and an unwavering minimalist aesthetic that has kept them in good stead indeed. No matter how wide their product offering, they’ve kept to their DNA of uncomplicated, and indeed straightforward, designs that are augmented by their welcome usefulness.

Muji PS pic 2Muji Labo: a more forward collection that pays particular attention to fabric and cutMuji PS pic 3There’s athletic wear now, presumably to take advantage of the athleisure trendMuji PS pic 4A new jeans section that is so extensive it easily rivals Uniqlo’s

The new store is reported to be the largest flagship in Southeast Asia. Designed by Super Potato, the Japanese ID firm of Takashi Sugimoto that is noted for its impressive list of hip stores and restaurants designs such as the Grand Hyatt’s Mezza9 and Straits Kitchen, this is a Muji conceived for discovery, zoned to bring you from one corner to another, not quite knowing what to expect. Those “Mujirers”, as they’re known, who are compelled to visit every Muji store in the cities they operate in will see the similarity with the Shanghai flagship in Huaihai Lu (淮海路) than, say, the Tokyo store in Shinjuku—one neo-rustic, the other white-steel-modern.

This is not a one-look-and-see-all approach to store layout, which, in many ways, had been Muji’s preferred floor-plan treatment until the arrival of Muji Yurakucho (Tokyo) store, a multi-floor behemoth that strikes awe with its warehouse-like space in which pockets of visual merchandising delightfulness are erected. The Plaza Singapura store is, perhaps, a lot more atmospheric (the differentiated lighting, for example, is a lot warmer than their other outlets here, and really recalls the Muji Chengdu flagship) and visually more engaging, with much of the store’s merchandise employed in its imaginative, tactile decor.

The focus is clearly on customer engagement, which accounts for the new areas in the store such as Found Muji in which items sourced from around the world is picked for their shared aesthetic values with the brand, and “re-tailored” to sit suitably alongside other Muji products. This includes an exhibition area, Open Muji, done pasar malam-style to show that regardless of provenance, good and functional design is border-less when it comes to usefulness and beauty.

Found MujiOne of the new concepts seen in Singapore for the first time is Muji Found, a collection of wares selected from different parts of the world

Found Muji pic 2Open Muji showing the various products from all over the world that inspire Muji designsIdeeIdée shows off a more ‘designed’ aspect of MujiMuji wall hangingIdée is stocked with unexpected items such as this wall hanging by Los Angeles ceramic artist Heather Levine

This belief is also exemplified in Idée, a line of merchandise described by Muji as “based on the theme of ‘Life is about everyday’”. But there’s nothing really “everyday” about these products since a knowing customer would immediately see the everyday-ness as ‘elevated’. Idée started as collaboration with emerging designers for furniture a few years back, but soon grew to cover table ware, textile, and decorative accessories that include art and even wall hangings. This, to us, is one of the most alluring parts of the new store.

In fact, furniture and furnishings now make up nearly half the store’s offerings. This may pose some competition to Ikea, although, admittedly, Muji’s prices are not as wallet-friendly and can, in fact, match those of stores such as Conde House in Millenia Walk. And as with Ikea, the new store offers interior decorating service, as well as custom-order for rugs and such. Customisation is, in fact, a crowd charmer, with shoppers drawn to the customised embroidery service available to those who purchased clothing in the store.

The thing about Muji is that no matter how wide the product categories or varied its in-store services, there’s an aesthetic oneness that does not arouse the senses for the sake of getting your buying urges in a knot. It makes one sometimes ponder, and, many a time, enjoy. For naysayers, Muji makes very plain and basic products. This plainness and elementariness do indeed make their success all the more beguiling. Is it saying that our appreciation of good design is finally seeing some semblance of sophistication?

MUJI furniture and furnishingAn impressive selection of furniture and furnishing is available in the new Muji Muji furniture and furnishings 2Bedding, always a strong product category, is now even more alluringMuji food 1Food remains a strong offering and now even more strikingly presented

It is ironic that Muji has occupied the space where John Little’s has failed. Since 2013, Singapore’s oldest department store has been relegated to the annals of our island’s retail history as a forgettable relic. Despite its heritage (174 years in business), John Little’s simply could not keep up with the changes that equate modern retailing. Muji opened in Singapore in 1995, four years after its first overseas store in Hong Kong. Its debut in Liang Court proved a little too premature as local shoppers didn’t quite understand the brand’s striking, chic minimalism and found the “plain things” (now dubbed “commercial zen”) too expensive. It exited Singapore after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (also known as the tom yum goong crisis as it started in Thailand) and returned in 2003 in then Seiyu department store (now BHG) to a staggeringly warm welcome. From that point there’s no stopping Muji, which now numbers 13 stores island-wide.

Muji, an abbreviation of the full name Mujirushi Ryohin, or “no brand, good quality” in Japanese, is now a staggering enlargement of the 40 products it started with in 1980, when parent company Seiyu created the private brand for their eponymous supermarkets as a way to lure shoppers tightening their purse strings during the economic downswing of that era. According to media reports, Muji presently retails more than 7,000 products, covering nearly every aspect of the urban lifestyle, with many of them having won awards in the category of design.

Some industry observers state that Muji is able to do what they do because they create everything under their own brand. Department stores, especially those here (Japanese ones too), have long forsaken the model of producing house brands that can be differentiated from those of competitors’. Instead, much of the space in department stores these days is leasable space, which inevitably means stores are no longer ‘curating’ their offerings the way they used to. Department stores are landlords the way mall operators are.  Additionally, according to London-based BMI Research in a report last year, department store’s declining popularity, “can be attributed to an outdated approach to demands of local consumers”. That Muji’s customers are forming long queues at the cashiers’ even five days after the opening high perhaps indicates that the brand knows how to appeal to shoppers. This, even without industry admission, is likely the envy of trad stores such as Tangs and Metro.

Muji flagship store is on level one, Plaza Singapura. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s