TOKYO, Japan: Fans of the popular lifestyle chain Muji could soon have reason to cheer, or to buy more.
Mr Satoru Matsuzaki, president of parent company Ryohin Keikaku, said the brand is looking to lower the prices of some of its products that are available elsewhere in the world “to the same level as in Japan”.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia’s Conversation With, Mr Matsuzaki acknowledged that currently, “most products are sold at a higher price compared to Japan, so we need to remove that difference for products that are sold on a global scale”. (Watch the episode here.)
A wooden spatula from Muji Singapore would set one back nearly S$30, while a similar one from Muji Japan costs only half that.
In recent years, Muji – short for Mujirushi-Ryouhin, or “no brand, quality products” – has become one of Japan’s most recognisable exports. Known for its minimalist and practical designs, the company sells over 5,600 products ranging from daily household goods to clothing and even furniture.
Muji started out as a private brand for Japanese department store Seiyu in 1980, selling just 40 household goods and food items like the U-shaped spaghetti – the leftover part of pasta that is cut off to sell straight spaghetti.
Its tagline then was “lower priced for a reason”, and it became known for its fuss-free packaging and affordability relative to its rivals.
But today, the company is struggling to make its pricing competitive overseas, even as it expands aggressively – with plans to grow its current stable of 870 stores to 1,200 worldwide by 2020.
WHEN A SPOON IS JUST A SPOON
Mr Matsuzaki, 64, who saw Muji through its first international foray into London in 1991, and recently spearheaded its expansion into China and India, is unusually frank about the company’s difficulties.
He conceded that “because of our weakness in the overseas markets, we do not have the capabilities to sell our products at the same (affordable) price as that in Japan”.
At the end of the day, a wooden spoon is a wooden spoon, so we need to take into consideration the market price.
He also pointed out that Muji’s mid-term management plan, which was put into action in 2017, includes a proposal that would see some of the same items selling for the same retail price globally, although he did not specify a timeline.
But Mr Matsuzaki clarified that narrowing the price gap for some products would not mean that Muji is “blindly trying to set the same price for all products worldwide”. There are other considerations like “trade tariffs and logistics cost”, he noted.
“In reality, there are very few companies that sell products at the exact same price all over the world,” he said.
Muji’s eventual goal, Mr Matsuzaki added, would be to set product prices based on a country’s per capita income. “It’s a pity but unfortunately, we have not reached the point where we can satisfy everyone.”
WATCH: What he thinks of Muji's competition (3:21)
FROM UNDERWEAR, TO HOTELS
Asked if he was concerned that Muji’s minimalist designs made its products a prime target for copycats, Mr Matsuzaki – who volunteered the fact that he wears Muji underwear and socks – agreed that “at a glance it looks like it is very easy to create copies of them”, particularly with the advent of 3D printers.
But given the brand’s wide range of products, “even if one manages to copy a single pen, notebook or a piece of clothing, there isn’t a company that can copy the entire lifestyle aspect … our entire business model,” he said.
For a similar reason, he brushes off competition from Swedish furniture retailer Ikea, also known for its clean-lines designs. “The genre of our products are different. If I may say so, I would also like to point out that the quality of our product is largely different,” he said.
Craftsmanship is a theme he likes to place gentle emphasis on. “For example, Muji uses organic cotton produced in places where we have physically visited and reviewed its quality with our own eyes.”
For now, the Muji lifestyle expertise has moved into a new area – hospitality, with the brand just opening a hotel in Shenzhen.
Lamenting how hotels today are either focused on the competition for stars denoting the level of luxury, or on being cheap places to sleep, he said: “I disagreed with the current landscape. That is why Muji Hotel proposes the concept of ‘anti-cheap, anti-gorgeous’.”
Watch the interview on Conversation With here. New episodes every Thursday at 8.30pm SG/HK.