Picture walking down a New York City street, and seeing an enticing, red-and-white logo with Japanese lettering outside a brightly lit storefront. Inside are aisles of minimalist, unbranded home products and apparel that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shibuya street market.
No, this isn’t Muji or Uniqlo — and despite the familiar layout and Japanese lettering on all the products, the store isn’t even Japanese.
The company, called Miniso, has made international headlines for its copycat marketing and its ambitious international expansion, and is now following in Xiaomi’s footsteps and planning a rumored IPO of up to 1 billion RMB (145 million USD) in either Hong Kong or the US.
Founded by Chinese entrepreneur Ye Guofu and Japanese designer Miyake Junya, Miniso opened its first store in China in 2013. It markets itself as design-forward but extremely affordable — a bricks-and-mortar chain where customers can find everything from makeup to keyboards at dollar-store prices.
According to their website, the “Japan-based” company was founded in Tokyo; however, 80-85% of its products are manufactured in China, and the company itself operates out of Guangzhou, where Guofu’s parent company Aiyaya is also headquartered.
If it isn’t already clear, Miniso is an example of a successful copycat company. The retailer’s initial success was based entirely on its intentional similarity to Japanese retail chains like Muji, Daiso, and Uniqlo, with the strategic difference being 1) it isn’t Japanese and 2) its products are much cheaper. Everything from its name, aesthetic, and logo to its store layout and products evoke an amalgamation of the biggest Japanese retailers that already have instant recognition.
The translation of the Japanese characters on its logo, “Meiso,” even sounds like a combination of Muji and Daiso. Many product packages contain kanji (the Chinese characters used in the written Japanese language) that don’t really say anything in Japanese, and under closer inspection, netizens discovered that the address provided on some products for its Japanese headquarters led to an Italian restaurant. Indeed, the most common comment from web users and official webpages has been, “I didn’t know Miniso wasn’t a Japanese company.”
The controversy even reached an international level in 2017. When Miniso became the first foreign-branded chain store to open a franchise in Pyongyang, North Korea, it was accused of violating both Japanese and international trade sanctions, and was forced to rebrand itself as “Evolution.”
The similarities have prompted many to ask: is this cultural appropriation, capitalist copycatting, or merely brand marketing at its most ingenious? Miniso’s exponential growth seems to indicate that as long as consumers are responding, it doesn’t matter. And they are very much responding; Miniso now has over 3,500 stores in 79 countries, bringing in an approximate revenue of 2.4 billion USD in revenue last year. For comparison, Muji has about 900 stores in 29 countries, with a revenue of 3.7 billion USD.
To its founders, Miniso is simply filling a niche in the market. Inspired by Japanese “100-yen shops” like Daiso, they feel that all customers want is simple, quality products at a cheap price, and the power of association is just another way to target customers who, at the end of the day, care mostly about price and quality.
At first glance, it’s easy to write off Miniso’s copycat nature as another consequence of China’s “knock-off culture.” But copycat companies are nothing new even outside China, and neither are Miniso’s strategies.
For example, Häagen-Dazs was famously started by Polish New Yorkers passing their company off as Dutch to give it a more European feel, even including a Dutch map on their ice cream cartons. South Korean skincare line The Face Shop and Brazilian retailer Lojas Renner are more examples of “copycat” brands that grew into their own fame.
In order to gain an edge on its higher-end competitors, Miniso has perfected the art of keeping both cost and prices low. According to Ye, the in-store turnover rate is extremely high: 21 days on average, with new products arriving every seven days. This is due in part to Miniso’s extensive in-house design team, who are able to observe consumer trends and quickly turn them around into aesthetically appropriate products.
Miniso also has a firm grasp on its key consumers: young people who want good-looking products at cheap prices. Partnerships with brands like Marvel and Sesame Street, combined with its pleasing “less is more” aesthetic, attract urban shoppers in droves.
Like Xiaomi, Miniso has had its fair share of controversy, often trying to simultaneously dodge and embrace the “knock-off” label commonly relegated to Chinese companies. But in a world where such boundaries become more hazy by the day, Miniso has proven itself to understand international consumer markets in a way that could revitalize physical retail, in a world increasingly dominated by e-commerce.
The impending IPO — as well as the copious other Miniso-inspired companies that have cropped up in the past few years — may indicate that there is still hope for brick-and-mortar stores, and that China might be leading the way.
Ironically, Miniso’s original inspiration, Muji, is now somewhat in decline. According to Business of Fashion, they hope to find new ways to reach the Chinese market that may require them to adopt aspects of Miniso’s strategy, such as focusing on urban areas and decreasing their inventory size. In other words: in order to stay afloat, Muji may have to copy the copycat.
To date, Miniso already has about 1 billion RMB in funding from Tencent and Hillhouse Capital Group, and has stated that the money raised from going public will go toward its hopes for aggressive global expansion — 10,000 stores in 100 countries by the end of 2022. So if all goes to plan, expect a Miniso opening in your backyard by this time next year.
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