retail watch | Nov 19, 2020 |
Muji is the latest brand to go the lifestyle retail route with West Elm deal

Think of it as Tokyo meets Brooklyn. Or maybe this week’s news that West Elm will begin selling selected products from Muji is more millennial meets minimalist?

However you view it, the new partnership between the Brooklyn, New York–based mega-retailer and the Japanese home and apparel brand fits into a bigger trend of U.S. lifestyle stores inking deals with third-party brands and licenses. In adopting this strategy, West Elm joins fellow Williams-Sonoma brands Pottery Barn and Rejuvenation, plus other prominent home retailers like Crate & Barrel and CB2, which are leveraging third-party collaborations to expand their customer bases.

The move is also a sign that Muji, whose U.S. subsidiary filed for bankruptcy this summer, is looking at new ways to sell into the American market during a time of COVID conditions—and as a workaround to its network of 19 physical stores, many of which are situated in high-rent, tourist-heavy areas.

The Muji brand was born in Tokyo in 1980, a spinoff from a larger Japanese supermarket, The Seiyu, that focused on simple products across the home and apparel categories. Muji’s name comes from the Japanese mujirushi ryohin, which translates to “no-brand quality goods,” and its mantra is based on three core values: selection of materials, streamlining of processes and simplification of packaging. And while the company’s products all bear a certain minimalist design aesthetic (not unlike the look of Swedish behemoth Ikea), they are by no means inexpensive, particularly when sold outside Japan.

Beyond its retail locations (more than 300 in Japan, plus more than 500 international locations), Muji recently opened its first hotel in Tokyo atop one of its stores in an effort to offer customers a full experience; the company has also tested convenience store and furniture subscription concepts in Asia.

Muji’s first appearance in the American market came in the early 2000s, when it introduced a limited number of products through the Museum of Modern Art’s store and website. The company planted roots in the U.S. when it opened its own shop in New York’s SoHo in 2007; the move was followed by 18 additional locations, primarily in big cities, and an e-commerce site. All of the stores were forced to close when the pandemic hit, which seemed to be a major cause of the company’s chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in July. (The company has also struggled in other countries—particularly in China, where anti-Japanese sentiment is strong as relations between the two countries deteriorate.)

The West Elm tie-in seems to represent an attempt to open up Muji’s distribution to a wider audience, although West Elm features only about 100 of Muji’s 7,000-plus SKUs—and they are only available online. Items range from $2 makeup containers to a $600 oak storage bench.

The partnership is one of several West Elm is currently running, including deals with outdoor company REI, direct-to-consumer furniture maker Floyd, and home decor brands Margo Selby and Closed Mondays. “We partner with ahead-of-the-curve makers, designers and brands to bring you more of what you love and make it even easier to shop the best of modern design,” reads the West Elm site.

Other businesses who fall under the overused (and under-explained) “lifestyle” heading are pursuing similar strategies: Retailers that once only carried their own in-house brand are all expanding in order to bring in new customers and temporarily offer merchandise that might not fit their core design matrix. Pottery Barn, for example, offers any number of collaborations—from partnerships with the Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter franchises to collaborations with Airstream and the Friends TV series.

CB2 has its own wide range of self-dubbed “design collabs” with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand, musician Lenny Kravitz, fashion accessories brand Hill-side, L.A. retailer Fred Segal, GQ magazine, and several individual designers. Its sister brand, Crate & Barrel, has a line from HGTV star Leanne Ford and just introduced kitchen accessories based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs. And while the vast majority of the assortments found at these retailers still sport the house label in advancing the store-as-brand merchandising strategy, there’s no disputing we’re seeing more breaks with that philosophy.

Muji may translate to “no-brand quality goods,” but the fact is that its goods are very much branded—and its new West Elm partnership is designed to capitalize on that.

Homepage photo: Products from the Muji x West Elm collaboration | Courtesy of West Elm

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Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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