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JUST what makes Muji so popular with consumers, despite it being around for 35 years? Its no-frills design approach to products is still the answer. Satoru Matsuzaki, president and representative director of Ryohin Keikaku Co, the parent company of Muji, says, "We only deal with products that are ordinary, practical and well-priced. Muji products are very universal, ageless, and in basic colours."
Its flagship store in Singapore at Paragon, looks set to be even more popular, not only with its revamped look, but with the addition of a cafe in the store.
Judging from pictures from social media, there have been long queues at Café&Meal Muji - sometimes up to a 30-minute wait. Like its other cafes in Japan, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, the cafe at Paragon operates under a self-service system, down to returning the trays after eating.
On the menu are two deli sets - either one hot deli and two cold deli dishes with white rice or bread for S$12.90; or two hot deli and two cold deli dishes with white rice or bread for S$16.90. There's the option of upgrading to the 10-grain rice for an additional S$1. Mr Matsuzaki says most of the dishes are similar to the ones in Japan, but with slight changes to suit the Singaporean palate. There's also a local dish, baked bak kut teh, with honey glaze. The meat on the ribs is tender, but the bak kut teh taste is too subtle to detect.
Mr Matsuzaki says that it was only a matter of time that Singapore had a Café&Meal Muji. "Muji is a known lifestyle brand, so apart from selling daily necessities and clothes, there is also food." The idea to have a cafe in Singapore took a year to plan from its design down to the menu, and it coincides with the Paragon store's new look.
"We chose Paragon because the spending per bill is about S$10 more than at the other stores," he says. He adds that he doesn't rule out opening more cafes but prefers to take it slow, "maybe just one cafe a year".
Mr Matsuzaki is not only pleased with the response to the cafe, but with the new store as well. Some of the new features include having higher fixtures for better product display; a section that carries a baby and kids clothing line, especially appropriate since Paragon is popular with parents and their tots; as well as offering customisation services for its furniture and fabric ranges.
"Homes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and homeowners have their personal preferences. So offering the customisation service makes sense," says Mr Matsuzaki.
Customers can pick their own material and fabrics not just for curtains and sofa covers but the range of oak furniture too. And it is not just the hardware that's new. At its Paragon, Ion and Vivocity outlets, there are interior advisors on hand, who can propose interior layouts using hand-drawn proposals followed by 3D simulations.
Fashion-challenged customers can tap on its style advisors at the Paragon store for help on picking the right garments and also on outfit layering. Mr Matsuzaki says the style and interior advisors were flown to Japan for training. "There's an exam at the end of the training, and they must pass it to be certified," he says. "It is all about maintaining standards."
He adds that this philosophy is important to the company, elaborating on the Mujigram, an operations manual that is placed at every store.
In Japan, that manual is 2,000 pages thick, while the Singapore one has only 300. Inside are details from how to receive goods, product displays, down to the position of price tags. "In Japan, the manual is updated monthly," says Mr Matsuzaki. "That's the difference between Muji and other companies, we are constantly updating our processes."
Muji first entered Singapore in 1995, but closed operations shortly after the 1997 financial crisis. It revived operations here in 2003 at the Seiyu department store at Bugis Junction. Today, it has nine outlets in Singapore.
Mr Matsuzaki says that compared with its other Asian neighbours, Singapore doesn't have a big population but "its impact is big". The Singapore stores, he says, are good test beds for stores such as in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. "We'd like to bring the cafe to Malaysia, and the Singapore cafe is a good platform for us to try out and see what works," he says.
With nine outlets in Singapore now, Mr Matsuzaki doesn't rule out opening more. He declines to give details of where the new stores will be, but says "there are still pockets of space".
Shoppers will have to keep their eyes peeled as Mr Matsuzaki says there will be no big fanfare when a store opens. "We want to be like water, to go into each country quietly but steadily."