By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
For two decades, the Asian supermarket Uwajimaya has stood guard in its current location on 5th Avenue South and South Dearborn Street, which sits on the south border of the International District. With its prominent, blue entryway sign and intricate flower logo, the flagship store drew out-of-town visitors and locals alike.
Now, with its year-long renovation complete, patrons will see a new entryway sign above the store’s southern entrance—one that features a red, sans-serif font with wider kerning next to a new, six-sided floral-inspired logo with undulating curves.
The new signage represents a shift in how Uwajimaya, in existence since 1928, wants to modernize its brand.
“We had an opportunity to look at our brand and how we’re talking to customers,” said Uwajimaya CEO Denise Moriguchi. “We want to make sure we’re staying relevant long-term, and the sign’s a small but visible piece of how we’re adapting to current times.”
The store’s remodel started in November 2019 with an anticipated 11-month timeline.
Led by Uwajimaya’s Development Manager Miye Moriguchi (Denise and Miye are cousins), the supermarket chain partnered with Hoshide Wanzer Architects and Cushing Terrell, two firms with expertise in brand architecture and grocery store design, respectively.
Together, they performed research to identify the store’s different customer types: the “loyalist” who’s familiar with Uwajimaya, its offerings, and where to quickly find them in the store, and the “explorer” who might be a first-time visitor and needs extra information to navigate the space. With this intel, the team created a customer journey that bridged yet served these specific needs.
This began with improving the store’s overall flow—how a customer moves through the space, from beginning to end. Previously, the check stands were in the middle of the store, which made it confusing to identify exit points. The remodel positions the cashiers by the store entrance, making it clear which direction to move in when transactions are complete.
Another noticeable difference is the store’s new shelf rotation. With the shelves turned away from the entrance, customers can now walk in and see to the other end of the store. This helps guests quickly scan the layout and find key departments like produce, deli, and the sashimi island.
From lighting fixtures to the paint selection, the interior design focuses on a clean aesthetic while colors are used to emphasize more fun and exploratory areas, like the snack section.
“Whether it was merchandising, design, or our offerings, we wanted the store to have continuity as customers moved throughout the space, but recognized the importance of crafting distinct experiences for key areas,” said Miye.
“Each expression of food, whatever it was, came out in the interior design while we had [design] ‘constants’ to tie the store together as a whole.”
Different natural materials like metal and steel keep the overall look neutral, said Miye, while warmer elements, like the yakisugi-inspired wood paneling that appears at the sashimi island, give it a refined, restaurant-quality feel. The result is a modern design fused with traditional woodwork that pays homage to Uwajimaya’s Japanese roots.
“It’s a blend of our history and future,” said Denise of the interior design.
“We want to honor our past and Asian roots, but move forward with new thinking. It’s the balance of old and new worlds, Asia and the Pacific Northwest—just embracing the duality of our company’s identity.”
Challenges and COVID-19
The remodel also presented unique challenges. As the anchor retailer in Uwajimaya Village—a cluster of businesses that include Kinokuniya Bookstore, several restaurants in Uwajimaya’s food hall, the Uwajimaya Apartments atop the supermarket, and more—Uwajimaya had to consider not only the least disruptive remodel for customers, but also their fellow businesses.
Since Uwajimaya was considered an essential business, it remained open during the first lockdown, which kept their renovation on schedule. However, other retailers had to temporarily close, like Kinokuniya, who shut its doors for three months. Although the bookstore has since reopened, the closure was a difficult set-back for the retailer.
And even though Uwajimaya stayed open, it didn’t have an ideal atmosphere with ongoing construction underway. Because the Uwajimaya team pursued an “occupied remodel,” which means construction is done in systematic phases, the store never had to close because of the renovation. However, the year-long construction meant that departments were regularly shuffled or blocked off, which made for a poor shopping experience.
The flagship’s location also has a broad customer base. Given its proximity to Pioneer Square, SoDo, and the waterfront, it’s historically relied on office workers, sports fans, and tourists for sales. But with many companies going remote, and with the cancellation of sports games and incoming cruise ships, the International District has seen a significant decline in business.
Meanwhile, Uwajimaya’s other locations in Bellevue, Renton, and Beaverton, Ore., have continued to cultivate strong sales. Denise attributes this to store locations in more residential, suburban neighborhoods where people are more likely to eat in and stay home, while the flagship relies on city workers and visitors.
Before the coronavirus, the store had already started to see a slowdown, and with people refraining from in-person shopping once the lockdown went into effect, there were fewer customers to contend with during construction.
“I go back and forth,” said Denise. “Did the remodel’s timing work out? It’s almost like it was fortuitous for the remodel to happen during that time.”
Despite newly announced lockdown measures as well as winter on the horizon, Denise remains optimistic about the store’s outlook, especially with new tech modifications in place. Uwajimaya partnered with the grocery delivery app Instacart for local deliveries, and all locations have curbside pick-up for shoppers who’d like to avoid crowds and get groceries without leaving their car.
Like their remodel, the Uwajimaya team’s looking into additional delivery channels to continue modernizing their shopping experience.
“We need to think of new ways to serve our customers,” said Denise. “But at the end of the day, they still need to eat.”
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.