How the Japanese Store Daiso Became a Phenomenon

Cute erasers are a popular item at Daiso.EXPAND
Cute erasers are a popular item at Daiso.
Liz Ohanesian

I made my first trip to Daiso almost two years ago, shortly after the Koreatown store opened. My friends had long been raving about the Japanese chain store, which already had spots in other parts of greater Los Angeles, for its selection cute items and low prices. "Almost everything is $1.50!" is the exclamation you'll hear from Daiso evangelists over and over again.

On that first trip to Daiso, my sole mission was to find notebooks. They had notebooks that resembled Moleskins, notebooks covered in brightly colored designs and notebooks small enough to fit into a pocket. I bought all of them, plus some multi-colored pens and, well, a lot of other stuff. I lugged a shopping bag that was heavier than it should have been onto the Purple Line and realized that I had joined the Daiso tribe.

Launched in Japan in the 1970s, Daiso is what's known as a "100 yen" store. Similar to dollar stores in the United States, the concept is to bring together a larger variety of items at a very low price. At Daiso, you can find everything from kitchen supplies to stationary to make-up.

So many eyelashes at Daiso.EXPAND
So many eyelashes at Daiso.
Liz Ohanesian

In the decades since its inception, the chain has spread across the globe. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that Daiso hit the U.S., first in Seattle, then San Francisco. In recent years, though, expansion has been quick and centered around Southern California. This weekend, Daiso opens shop in Long Beach, which will be its 29th location in the region.

"Our concept is more like a neighborhood store," says Yoshihide Murata, senior vice president of Daiso, adding that the average customer lives within a five mile range of the Daiso they frequent.

In the beginning, the company focused on areas that have large Asian populations, as Daiso has long been established in numerous Asian countries. "Asian customers, they likely already know Daiso's name," he says.

That brand recognition gives the company the opportunity to establish itself. Now that they've done that, Murata says that they are trying to focus on non-Asian customers.

Daiso is a quick addiction. After you start shopping there, you might notice changes in your home. Your make-up bag starts to overflow with eyebrow grooming tools and items to rid your face of blackheads. Japanese snacks and candy like Pocky, Hi-Chew and Hello Panda will spill from your cupboard. Your home office will be filled with organizational tools, even if you are only pretending to be organized.

It's also an addiction that is spreading organically. Just as I headed to Daiso after hearing friends' reactions to the store, some of my friends and family members did the same after I rambled on and on and on about it. 

These sponges might make you happy to clean the kitchen.EXPAND
These sponges might make you happy to clean the kitchen.
Liz Ohanesian

Murata describes Daiso's client base as 75 percent female and largely middle-class. The age range varies drastically. They see both younger and older customers at the store. The popularity of Japanese fashion and pop culture in California has also contributed to their success.

Murata adds that the 50-cent difference between Daiso and a dollar store is part of what makes them stand out. He says it allows them to make better quality items and offer products that are a little out of the ordinary.

Daiso items are almost entirely made in-house. They have their own design team, in addition to a massive plastics factory in Thailand.

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The attentiveness to design is strong. Storage boxes come in an array of colors and patterns. Then there are the cleaning tools that actually make you want to do dishes. "Usually, a sponge is a sponge," says Murata. That's not the case at Daiso, where sponges come with happy faces and other supplies are shaped like animals. It's keeping with the style in Japan of items that are very cute, called kawaii. Of course, adorable mascot characters, like Hello Kitty, are also quite popular in Southern California.

Amongst Daiso's most popular products are a variety of beauty supplies, kitchenware and stationary items. Sets of colorful erasers, some scented, some shaped like food, attract customers. But it's not just the cute stuff that attracts customers. Murata points to the popularity of items like stainless steel soap, which kills strong food smells, and laundry nets that protect clothes in the wash. Of course, you can find these items through other outlets, but the cost will be much higher.

Ultimately, at least for me, what makes Daiso a point of obsession is the reactions that the items get. People will ask you where you got your notebooks, cell phone wallet or business card case. They'll look shocked when you tell them it was $1.50. Your friends and family might send you out to pick up something for them — until a new Daiso opens in their neighborhood.

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