Did Muji take a wrong turn in San Francisco?
Muji finally opened in San Francisco late last year, ending a low-grade yearning that has nagged local devotees since the Japanese chain landed in New York in 2007. But unlike the fanfare that greeted Uniqlo, another Japanese brand that debuted here last fall, Muji’s arrival was more akin to sneaking in the back door—literally. Its location on a featureless and very pedestrian-unfriendly stretch of Ninth Street, five lengthy blocks from Market Street, left fans unsure of the store’s actual location, and wondering if the Muji brand had taken a wrong turn.
I first stumbled upon Muji more than a decade ago in London, where Muji’s pitch-perfect offering of housewares and office supplies resonated seductively with the neighborhood and London’s global city cred. There and in later Muji visits—in Paris, Tokyo, and New York—the contrast between the urbane retail districts and the store’s well-designed, quasi-generic products, priced accordingly, created a sense of both value and excitement.
In San Francisco, Muji sits on an island isolated by busy streets and facing a fortress-like Trader Joe’s/Bed and Bath mini-mall. Shoppers arriving on foot or by transit must brave a five-way intersection, where a freeway off-ramp feeds into two four-lane thoroughfares, and a reasonably protected approach for bicyclists is completely absent. While a high-end modern furniture showroom sits just two doors down from Muji, the stucco-clad mall and traffic set the tone, and in this context, Muji feels more discount than design-value concept.
While real estate insiders have hinted that the choice of location stemmed from sticker shock, according to a Muji spokesperson, the decision reflects an expectation of job growth and new housing projected for the neighborhood, as well as a desire for easy freeway access. Taken a step further, it also reflects a confidence in Muji’s brand, that it can overcome the location’s glaring shortcomings in the near term and raise the bar for future retail development along the Ninth Street corridor.
Puzzling, yes, but having done more than my part to boost the store’s early sales in San Francisco, I’m not inclined to bet against Muji. Its San Jose store is set to open on schedule in April.