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Not Just Made in Japan

This successful retail company does not try to be all things to all people

FISHING FOR FOREIGN PRODUCTS: After 20 years of trial-and error, Richard Matsu, executive vice president of Marukai Corp., has found the right niche of products and customers. Photo: Jimmy Forrest

When Marukai Corp. opened its 99¢ Superstore at the Windward Mall on the morning of May 24, hundreds of customers already had been standing in line since 3 a.m. By the end of the day, more than 5,000 people had visited. Perhaps that is because the store stays true to its name, selling merchandise for no more than a buck. Whatever the reason, Marukai Corp. deservedly belongs on this year's Top 250 list, at No. 155, with gross sales of $40 million.

"The economy is difficult right now," says Executive Vice President Richard Matsu, who brought Marukai Corp. to Hawaii from Osaka, Japan, in 1965. "Plenty of people don't have jobs or they're losing their jobs. I want to offer variety to customers, at modest prices." He advises store buyers to scour Japan, Korea and Taiwan for items with retail values of up to $5. That way, the 99-cent price tag is even more attractive.

Marukai Corp. is a master of specialty retailing. In addition to the Windward location, the company operates 99¢ stores at the Ward Complex and at the Waipahu Town Center. It owns two members-only supermarkets, the Marukai Wholesale store in Kalihi and the Marukai Marketplace in Honolulu. Both supermarkets sell Japanese foods and other Asian products and boast 80,000 members in Hawaii. Kenko Kenko, also at Ward, offers Japanese beauty and healthcare products.

The company was not this diversified when it first appeared on the Top 250 list in 1984, at No. 180, with $12 million in gross annual sales. In fact, Marukai was a wholesale company with stores on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. Its Japanese food products were even available at military commissaries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That, says Matsu, was a breakthrough. At first, military stores "were uncomfortable selling Japanese food, but I visited the buyers every day, and we finally got a small space," he says. The commissaries granted him 50 feet of shelf space.

Marukai Corp. no longer tries to woo military personnel. Today, its heart is with local shoppers - consumers who crave quality (some say exotic) foods at reasonable prices. Marukai supermarkets in Kalihi and Ward are a menagerie of products, ranging from somen to onigiri bentos and elderly care products made in Japan. "We try going after niche markets," Matsu says. "Whatever people want, we try to cater to them."

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