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Zen And The Art Of Selling Minimalism

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It sells sleek and functional designs in a spare retail setting. Its prices can't be beat. And it has legions of fanatical devotees. Ikea? Nope. It's Muji. Though few Americans know it today, that may soon change.

Muji's full name, Mujirushi Ryohin, translates into "no-brand quality products." This fall, the store is heading to the U.S. in hopes of wooing Americans tired of in-your-face logos and over-the-top design. "To us, it's all about a product that's simple and functional," says Tadamitsu Matsui, chief executive of Muji's parent company, Ryohin Keikaku Co. "Once you remove the price tag from our products, there's nothing to indicate what the brand is."

But Muji isn't just another generic brand. Its post-industrial designs tap into the less-is-more esthetic visible in Japan's temple gardens and haiku. Larger Muji outlets carry more than 7,000 products that run the gamut from $4 striped socks to a $1,170 front-loading washer-dryer combo. There's even a line of prefab houses that start at $115,000.

Muji already enjoys plenty of fans overseas. The company has 387 outlets in 15 countries, including 34 stores in Europe, and has been adding a dozen or more annually in recent years. To date its only U.S. presence has been at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where its $8 aluminum business-card holders and $42 collapsible cardboard speakers have been a hit. Muji estimates net profit for the year ended in February rose 9.4%, to $90.7 million, on a 14.5% increase in sales, to $1.3 billion.

The question is whether Muji's celebration of the ordinary will play well stateside. The Japanese retailer will be taking on heavyweights: Ikea and Crate & Barrel in furniture, Gap (GPS) in apparel, and Target (TGT) in housewares, which cater to Muji's intended audience of consumers in their 20s and 30s. Although Muji hasn't yet determined what it will charge for its wares at a new 5,000-sq.-ft. store in midtown Manhattan, its prices at MoMa's two stores are roughly double those in Japan. Muji "will have to carve out its own place," says David Marra, a retail consultant at a.t. Kearney Inc. in Tokyo.

Muji's chief is treading carefully. He expects the New York store to turn a profit within a year; outposts in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco might follow. While Muji is riding the same Japanese pop-culture wave that has landed retailers such as Uniqlo in New York in the past year, Matsui believes his brand has staying power: "Muji's roots are Japanese," he says. "But we think our products will appeal for their simple, universal designs."

By Kenji Hall, with Elizabeth Woyke in New York

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