Inside MUJI’s E-Commerce Strategy: How the International Brand Adapts to Local Markets in the US and Canada

photo of Eric Kobuchi, Director of E-Commerce at MUJI
Published on
Dec 18, 2023
Written by
Kayla Ellman
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As MUJI continues to grow their presence in North America, Eric Kobuchi is drawing from his 11-year career with the company to make sure they stay true to their roots.

Officially, Eric Kobuchi is the Director of E-Commerce at the Japanese “no brand” brand MUJI. But among coworkers, he's known as the "Swiss Army Knife" of the company.

It's not hard to see why Kobuchi has earned that nickname. He's been at MUJI for over a decade, touching nearly every aspect of the business over the years. Starting in sales and operations, as a store manager in San Francisco, Kobuchi worked his way up, taking on roles in store development, business development, and strategic partnerships along the way. Now, he's running all of e-commerce for MUJI in North America. 

Kobuchi's broad understanding of the brand makes him uniquely suited to help grow MUJI's presence in the US and Canada, and, ultimately, make sure customers have the best digital experience possible.

Recently, Kobuchi chatted with Melissa Brown, Director of Client Strategy at Attentive, about all things e-commerce at MUJI: adapting their global strategies to local markets, using customer feedback to make continuous improvements, and more.

Listen to the full conversation below, and keep reading for the highlights.

Inspiring customers to “MUJI-fy” their daily lives

MUJI carries a huge selection of "no-brand quality goods.” Over 7,000 SKUs, to be exact. In their stores and online, you can find everything from clothing and household goods to stationary, beauty products, and even food—all with minimal packaging and no logos.

That mix of variety and simplicity makes it easy for people to fit MUJI products into their routines. It's also what'll help MUJI keep growing their customer base in North America, where the brand is still relatively unknown. "We really sell everything that you can use in your daily life," says Kobuchi, describing what one day in the life of a MUJI enthusiast could look like.  

text messages from MUJI on a yellow background

They wake up in their MUJI bed made with MUJI bedding. Head to the bathroom, shower, and dry off with their MUJI towel. Brush their teeth with their MUJI toothbrush and toothpaste. Put on their MUJI clothes and sneakers. Grab their MUJI backpack filled with their MUJI planner and pens. Leave for work, come back home, and eat dinner on their MUJI table set with MUJI dishware and cutlery. Rinse and repeat.

Kobuchi clarifies that only a small percentage of customers use MUJI’s entire product line. But the point, he says, is that “we really do have any product for someone to fit seamlessly into any lifestyle, not just one particular lifestyle." 

That’s why Kobuchi doesn’t think about MUJI's target audience in terms of the whole company, but rather by department. Their stationary, for instance, is overwhelmingly popular among students, so that's who the brand focuses on marketing those products to. 

text messages from MUJI on a yellow background

With so many different SKUs, MUJI has the potential to reach lots of different audiences. The trick is finding the right entry point for somebody who's not familiar with MUJI to become a customer initially, and then graduate to other products and eventually become sticky. 

For stationary fans, that entry point might be MUJI’s gel ink pen, mainly because of the price point. It only costs $1.90, which means they don’t have to think much about it—they can just buy it, explains Kobuchi. Once they use the pen and realize they love it, they might try something else, like a t-shirt or a bathmat, and then they're hooked. 

text messages from MUJI on a yellow background

The products that get people to purchase, and the departments that drive the most sales, vary from season to season. It could be packing cubes or small travel bottles during the summer months, or tableware ahead of the holiday season. But the goal is always the same: to win people over by showing them how MUJI fits into their lives.

Bringing a global brand to local markets

MUJI’s global presence means that Kobuchi is responsible for adapting their e-commerce strategies to fit local markets and cultures in North America. That includes the content and offers they promote, the website and customer experience, and even the digital channels they use.

Making sure everyone feels welcome

"We have to be really cognizant of all the different holidays and really localize, so that the local markets feel like MUJI is a part of that community...and not just treating Canada as the 51st state," says Kobuchi. 

But as a company, MUJI also puts a lot of emphasis on providing a globally inclusive and consistent brand experience—no matter where or how their customers are shopping. MUJI wants to be known as an international brand for anyone and everyone, explains Kobuchi.

text message from MUJI on a yellow background

So when there's a holiday or timely offer to promote, their approach is very subtle. Giving shoppers $31 off their orders for Halloween. Using clever copy like "It's your lucky day" to announce St. Patrick's Day deals. The little details go a long way. 

Understanding what's in a (product) name

It's not just marketing content that needs to be adapted to better resonate with local audiences. Some product names have been changed, too, because they include a word or phrase that's not commonly used in North America. "Most of the terminology we get might be literally translated from Japanese to English, so when we practice SEO, we have to do our own Google searches and see what else is coming up," explains Kobuchi. 

text message from MUJI on a yellow background

That's how the brand's popular "hard carry" luggage became "hard shell" in the US and Canada. MUJI’s website came up first when searching for "hard carry luggage," which was a good indication that local customers wouldn't be familiar with the term.

Taking a flexible approach to returns

One of the biggest cultural shifts Kobuchi had to make for MUJI in North America was introducing a return policy. In Japan, returns aren't very common, but in North America, customers are used to being able to return things with relative ease.

Kobuchi remembers one particular customer who bought a bed, but ultimately wasn't happy with it, and wanted to exchange it. "I asked my supervisor at the time how this works, and he said there are no exchanges, no returns. And I was kind of perplexed," he recalls. 

Now, that's no longer the case. Since MUJI is still trying to grab market share and gain more customers in North America, Kobuchi says they’ve taken a more flexible approach where they accept more returns. They also proactively reach out to customers who leave negative reviews to understand why they weren't happy, and try to get them a refund or store credit—an approach that helps build trust and loyalty

Activating SMS in the US and Canada

MUJI's e-commerce strategy in Japan is more focused on email and newsletter sign-ups. But in North America, SMS is a big part of MUJI's marketing mix. 

After launching their SMS program with Attentive on the US side and seeing strong results, they decided to activate it on the Canada side, too. "We've really been more aggressive on that front as well," says Kobuchi, noting that text messaging works so well because people are attached to their phones. "When you're scrolling through emails, if you're like me, you really want to read to the bottom. But for text messages, it takes just a split second to look at it," he adds. 

Harnessing customer feedback to improve products

Customers in Japan are encouraged to write in to MUJI and share their opinions on products, and if the company sees an opportunity to make improvements, they'll do it. "We've had a lot of household products that have survived decades worth of customers, and they've gone through multiple iterations based on customers' feedback," explains Kobuchi.

This type of feedback cycle comes from "Kaizen," the Japanese principle of continuous improvement. It's something that Kobuchi hopes to replicate for MUJI in North America, anchored by the 100-150 customer reviews that come in every day. 

"Because I came from the store background, I'm used to being able to go and talk to any of the customers in the store and just have a conversation with them," says Kobuchi. "So I really rely on these see what our customers think about our brand and our products."

Usually, there's some positive insight or constructive criticism worth passing on to the appropriate team, especially if it's something that's been mentioned a few times. The goal is to be able to improve and iterate on products so they better suit the customer and their needs. 

One of Kobuchi's mentors told him to think about it like this: "If you use the MUJI product and you don't think about it at all, then we did our job well." Ideally, customers will just be able to enjoy using their MUJI products, whether they’re taking notes with their MUJI pen or rolling their MUJI luggage through the airport. 

“If the pen writes cleanly and smoothly, and the ink comes out evenly and dries quickly all the time, then you never think about it and you can concentrate on your writing,” says Kobuchi. “But if there's something wrong with the pen, then you're not thinking about what you're writing. You're thinking about the pen itself, and that's inhibiting you from what you really want to do.” 

Where to find Eric: 

Eric’s advice for career growth: Stay curious, and don’t be afraid to ask what might seem like obvious questions. 

Learn more about MUJI’s minimalist ideology: 

Want to hear (and learn) more from leading marketers at other brands? Check out these inspiring customer stories.

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