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Wednesday, November 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Popular Japanese import store offers cheap, plentiful goods

Special to The Seattle Times

Ceramic cats. Grass mats. Baseballs, but sorry — no bats.

With more than 10,000 imported knickknacks at Daiso, a new discount store at Alderwood, customers can easily spend hours shuffling though its narrow aisles.

Need a paper bag? Colored rags? A rubber duck? Everything in the store is just a buck or two.

The Hiroshima-based company's name means "Big Creation" in Japanese. It has more than 2,500 stores in Japan and 500 elsewhere in Asia and in the Middle East. There's one in Richmond, B.C., but the Alderwood store is the company's first venture in the U.S.

"I feel like I'm in Japan," said customer Dawn Washio, 16, of Lynnwood, who was at the store recently with a friend.

Washio visits Japan every other year and said stores such as Daiso, known there as 100-yen and 99-yen shops, are extremely popular.

The company is growing at the rate of one store a day, Daiso officials said. Though the company was started 28 years ago, it waited until last month to open in the United States.

Its stores outside Japan are franchised, except the Alderwood store, which is run directly through a U.S. holding company, Daiso Seattle.

Daiso officials spent more than a year researching the best location on the U.S. West Coast, traveling to San Francisco and Los Angeles before choosing the Seattle area because of its smaller and less-competitive market.

The company hopes to open 20 more stores in the U.S. once it sees how the Alderwood store does.

"They have been very cautious. That's why they're running it themselves instead of the franchise system," said Shinsuke Nikaido, an assistant to the manager who has consulted for the company. "They believe the U.S.A. is a very important market for them and want to target the average American."

At 4,700 square feet, the Alderwood store is a small version of the company's other stores, which usually are 10,000 to 40,000 square feet. But on a recent Saturday, it was packed with customers looking at dishes, housewares, plastic containers, tools and other merchandise. Japanese pop music played in the background.

Because all the goods are created and shipped from overseas, many of them will be new to American consumers, store manager Koji Nishigaya said. Some unusual items include a lighted earwax picker, a wooden stick used to straighten framed pictures and a form-fitting plastic sheet to protect TV remote controls.

"I didn't think [Americans] would buy it, but they have," Nishigaya said through a translator.

The store, next to Sears in the mall's northwest corner, also sells 94 kinds of scissors, a trash can just for dry-cell batteries, cellphone jewelry, toilet paper for pets and five varieties of lint rollers.

Costs are kept down because the company buys in volume, Nishigaya said. Its research-and-development team creates nearly 1,000 items a month, according to company officials.

The company generates $3 billion a year in sales. At the Alderwood store, profits have been double what was expected, Nishigaya said.

But there have been some glitches, he added. Garden supplies haven't sold as well as other merchandise because the company hadn't realized the U.S. market was seasonal.

The Alderwood store is run in a Japanese style, employees said. Many of them speak Japanese, which is beneficial because few items have English labels.

Teamwork is emphasized, and staff members are expected to greet customers and hand back change with two hands as a sign of respect.

The staff is also constantly stocking and restocking merchandise and clearing away misplaced items.

"There is no slacking off here. They have high expectations," employee Mongtai Lin said.

The store also has no janitor, and staff members take turns cleaning the restroom.

"I grew up that way," said employee Tomoko Laverty, who lives in Mukilteo but was raised in Japan. "In elementary school, we cleaned the toilet ourselves. They still do it that way. It gives you discipline."

Trying to look at all the items in the store also requires discipline. Stephan McElroy, 21, visited the store recently with friend Sean Aikin, 20. The two had visited Japan in high school and wanted to check out the store.

"It's full of really random things," said McElroy, holding a rolled-up straw mat across his back, "you never know what you're gonna find."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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