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UNIQLO – Reaching Out to the Customer

Maria Segarra, Retail Specialist

UNIQLO (ユニクロ, “unique clothing”) is today a leading brand in international retail and everyone is keen to hear when and where it will next set up shop. We have been checking out its openings across Europe on the different trips we have made with businesspeople on the Retail Tour and have been able to experience and see its implementation in each different place.

If we look at what is behind the company, the first thing we discover is a person with a unique and powerful business profile.

Tadashi Yanai (president of the holding company Fast Retailing) is one of the most influential businesspeople in Japan.

The boy who first began to connect with the retail world through a family clothing business gained first-hand experience in the textile/fashion game from production bases in Japan and right from the start was wowed by the model of American liberalism. In the end, all of his experience, training, hard work and ambition resulted in a business model which is now in a phase of expansion and which has set its cap at becoming the world’s leading specialty retailer of private label apparel, ahead of Inditext (Zara), H&M and Gap.

From what we have seen of Uniqlo in the different world capitals where the brand operates (New York, London, Berlin and, on our most recent trip, Tokyo) we were able to identify a clear strategy of reaching out to the customer.

Reaching out to the customer with a product proposal that responds to current needs; basic and necessary products, of good quality and at competitive prices.

Reaching out to the customer making its philosophy clear, beyond competitors such as Zara. It is obvious that they are fairly different in terms of product policy, as Uniqlo does not do fast-turnover, cutting-edge fashion collections but focuses on the basic items we all want. Here they are straight-up with customers, with two elements that identify them and give meaning to their LifeWear label: comfort and quality.

You feel it instantly.

So comfortable, so right, so you-

clothes that are who you are

And where you are going.

Reaching out to the customer through innovation and new products, as they did back in the day with their fleece sweatshirts, the product that boosted the label’s popularity and which includes the HeatTech version for winter and AIRism for summer, with the former being a heat-generating fabric that Uniqlo patented and developed along with the Japanese company that supplies carbon-fibre to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Reaching out to the customer by creating emotional bonds – indeed, when you are a Japanese company that seeks to be a benchmark in a different society, you have to show that you understand your customers and can offer them everything they want and need. In fact it mustn’t be easy in the expansion process to reach and woo the American or European public.

In this sense, it was interesting to see the idea of customising its collections, as we witnessed in New York with the t-shirts with pictures from National Geographic, or later, in London, where we found products that enjoyed the collaboration of British designer Celia Birtwell (a way of adding a British touch to the collection and customer tastes) and Ireland’s Orla Kiely; or the current and most chic collaboration, with French designer Ines de la Fressange.

Reaching out to the customer by creating stories on the basis of their stars, who explain to us, other potential buyers, why they wear a Uniqlo product and marvel at its composition, quality and comfort, as are the cases of tennis player Novak Djokovic and golfer Adam Scott.

However, the most interesting thing we saw is what Tadashi Yanai is doing in Japan and, more particularly, Tokyo, with an experience the Retail Tour in Tokyo laid on for us in July.

In a city as densely populated as Tokyo, from the retail point of view you can segment heavily and have customers in very different places and offer very different proposals. The strategy we observed was a clear commitment to reaching out to the customer physically, i.e., by siting the stores in places with a maximum flow of customers.

Of note was the proposal we were offered in the shopping area of Shinjuku, the commercial district of major department stores and electronics retailers. In this case, Uniqlo has entered into a collaboration agreement with Bic Camera, one of the key customer drivers for electronic goods. The outcome, which goes under the trade name of BICQLO, is a strange mix, as once you are in the establishment the product proposals mix together and the result is to cause a multiplication effect in the flow of shoppers.

In the opposite corner we have the Roppongi zone inside the Tokyo Midtown mall, described by its developers as a high-quality complex of daily use in downtown Tokyo, with a clearly high-end mix and added-value customer segments. The store’s location could not be more strategic: right at the entrance to the underground connection into the centre and with access to the restaurant area, in a space frequented both by executives who work in the nearby office blocks and shoppers at the mall.

Finally, we were surprised by the presentation we were given in Ginza, the 5th avenue of Tokyo. The idea was clear – in this street the label’s flagship store makes a commitment, with Uniqlo’s largest retail area in the world set in a 12-floor building covering a total of 4,959 square metres. The most unusual thing is the centre’s rear entrance and connection. Expressly for shoppers after the latest fashion trends, a reference establishment in Tokyo is (just as it is in London and New York) the Dover Street Market store of Comme des Garçons. Here the store has a direct entrance to Unilqo along a corridor leading to the Women’s Smart Casual area.

In short, the goal is to reach the maximum number of shoppers through international expansion, strategic siting and collaborations with other retailers if necessary, as we saw in Tokyo with Bic Camera and Dover Street Market.

Now we will have to wait and see when it is going to come here…

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