MINISO going places despite Muji copycat charge

June 10, 2016 16:43
Think you are inside a Muji store? No, it's a Chinese franchise despite the Japanese vibe it tries to project. Photo: HKEJ

Controversies continue to hound MINISO, a mainland retail chain that projects the image of a Japanese fashion brand.

Critics have accused it of piggybacking on Japanese retail giants Muji, Uniqlo and Daiso.

Also, the Guangzhou-based vendor of household and consumer items, which has already penetrated the Hong Kong market, was recently accused by a local designer of stealing his original design of stickers which he said he found on smartphone cases sold in MINISO stores.

But Mike Wong, MINISO’s Hong Kong regional manager, told the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly that there must be some misunderstanding; his company has no intention of infringing on others' intellectual property as it can well afford the licensing fee.

MINISO opened its first Hong Kong store in downtown Yuen Long in November 2014, and has since expanded into Tsuen Wan, Kwun Tong and Yau Ma Tei, boosting its local network to 35 stores in less than two years’ time.

Its employee headcount is 450 and still counting. Wong aims to further double the number by the year's end.

By comparison, Muji and Uniqlo together have no more than 36 outlets in the city.

A typical MINISO store is around 200 square meters in size and goods on sale range from cosmetics, stationery and toys to kitchenware, with prices as low as HK$15.

Most items were sourced from China despite the Japanese vibe the company spares no time mimicking, and still, the business is booming.

One proof is that the brand now needs less than eight months to recoup the initial investment, around HK$3 million, for each new store in town.

Since 2013 MINISO has opened 1,600 stores, with over 1,000 in mainland China, and across a number of other markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, etc. Aggregate sales will double from last year’s HK$5 billion.

“I have to admit the first time I visited a MINISO store, I was so mistaken that I thought it was another brand under Muji,” Wong said, who once worked at Swarovski as a procurer.

But he still tries to make a case for MINISO: “Since the brand also hires Japanese designers and advocates simple and low-carbon lifestyle, I see no problem if customers sometimes can’t tell us from other Japanese brands.”

While some lash out at the brand’s tactic of selling Japanese look-alike products, Wong stressed that all items in its Hong Kong stores all conform to intellectual property regulations.

“You can’t say we are copycats, only a judge can hand down a ruling like that,” he said.

But what he can’t deny is the fact that customers in Hong Kong and the mainland trust a Japanese brand more than their homegrown offerings, and that is exactly why many find MINOSO’s corporate identity plagiaristic, or at least misleading.

Some even call the entire business a “racket”.

On the brand’s website, you can find ineptly photoshopped photos of Junya Miyake, said to be the brand founder and lead designer, attending MINISO store openings and other events.

One of them is Miyake, along with Hong Kong idol Priscilla Wong Tsui-yu, appearing at the opening of the MINISO flagship store in Singapore, though no one is sure if the brand founder really showed up or not.

And despite the Japanese copycat charges, MINOSO now runs four stores in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro, Shibuya and Harajuku districts.

News reports say goods on sale there all have labels in Japanese, though mostly ungrammatical.

MINISO’s management in China admitted that they merely relied on Baidu’s free translation app to prepare the labels in Japanese.

This article appeared in the June issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

Yan Lee contributed to this article.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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MINISO Hong Kong manager Mike Wong says he himself was "fooled" the first time he visited a MINISO store. But he said there's nothing wrong with imitating the Japanese style represented by Muji and Uniqlo. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal