Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Japan’s richest man remakes once-drab Uniqlo in Manhattan’s likeness

Tadashi Yanai aims to revamp the company’s image at home with a swanky new store in Tokyo and trendier clothes

By Cheng Herng Shinn and Shunichi Ozasa  /  Bloomberg

Uniqlo staff members prepare to greet customers at the company’s flagship store on Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei.

Photo: Taipei Times

Uniqlo, the Japanese T-shirt maker, wanted to change its image, which was seen as drab in its homeland. Part of the solution: recreating the sheen of its New York Fifth Avenue store in Tokyo’s most expensive fashion district — rebranding from the outside in.

On Friday, Uniqlo will open its world’s largest store in Tokyo’s Ginza area. Combined with a shift to use English as its official language and plans to hire more international workers, the strategy is designed to shed Uniqlo’s roots as a budget label that started selling cheap clothing 30 years ago.

“We came from the boonies, a roadside store,” Tadashi Yanai, the 63-year-old president of Uniqlo’s parent, Fast Retailing Co and Japan’s richest man, said last month. “Overseas, our image is that of a global company, but in Japan, we have this legacy issue which we take with us. This roadside image, old image is still in the minds of people and we want to show people the new Uniqlo.”

Uniqlo’s efforts to revive its brand at home, where sales fell 2.4 percent last year, are a study in how some Japanese firms are adapting to an aging population and stagnant domestic economy to find new ways of growing. Success may give Fast Retailing a boost in a market that provides more than 80 percent of its US$10 billion in annual revenue and competes with global brands including Zara and H&M.

“The reimporting of their brand image may actually work,” said Mikihiko Yamato, deputy head of research for JI Asia in Tokyo.

In Manhattan, after the success of a Soho outlet, the company set up a glass-fronted corner store on Fifth Avenue, the priciest retail street globally last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield, the commercial real estate services company. It was followed by another store on New York’s 34th Street.

After gaining customers around the world, the company decided the quickest way to revamp its image at home was to import the glitz of Fifth Avenue and let Japanese customers “experience the difference,” Uniqlo said in its annual report.

The outlet in Ginza, where rents cost about US$11,238 per square meter last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield, will be a gleaming white rectangular glass-front building of 12 stories.

With floor space of 4,877m2, or almost the same size as an American football field, the new outlet replaces a smaller store and will be manned by a staff of 520. Included in the workforce will be about 100 foreigners from around the world speaking English, Mandarin, Korean, French and Spanish.

“Ginza is the first place foreign brands set up shop when they enter Japan,” said Masamichi Nakamura, executive director at Interbrand Japan, a marketing consultant. “McDonald’s and Starbucks had their very first stores in Ginza.”

In addition to the company’s traditional products such as T-shirts and casual clothes, the new store will sell trendy fashions from its collaborative lineup with the Undercover brand and an exclusive line of outfits created for Kei Nishikori, Japan’s top-ranked tennis player and the world’s No. 17.

For a chain that built its reputation on cheap clothing that anyone could afford, Uniqlo is going to face hurdles convincing Japanese shoppers it’s hip, according to analyst James Moon.

“They have 800-plus stores and they mainly sell basic stuff like underwear” in Japan, said Moon, an analyst for BNP Paribas Equity Research in Tokyo. “They want to sell more to women and to sell more outer wear, and to do that you have to be a little bit more fashionable.”

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