It may only have 10 UK stores - all in London - but Uniqlo’s chief executive for Europe is eyeing up global domination.
On a recent shopping trip to Birmingham with my cousins (aged 26 and 21, both women interested in fashion), the following conversation took place.
Me: “Is there a Uniqlo here?” Cousins: “A Uniqlo?” Me: “Yes, a Uniqlo!” Cousins: “What’s a Uniqlo?”
Incredble, I thought, until I remembered that London - the only city in the UK where the Japanese retailer has stores (10 of them) - exists in its own retail bubble.
While the name draws a blank for my Bristol and Cardiff-residing cousins (a Northern male friend in his 30s added: “I’ve heard of them but don’t know what they are.”), Uniqlo conjures up different connotations for many Londoners with an interest in fashion: quality basics at affordable prices and an impressive jeans offer, presented with a cool and quirky Japanese undertone - currently one of the highest accolades in fashion.
This is exactly the picture we were presented with at Uniqlo’s autumn 13 LifeWear launch in Paris last month.
Bright sunlight flooded into the white space on rue Commines to reveal compulsively neat rows of mannequins, their expertly styled, colourful clothing competing for attention with the immaculately coiffed headpieces, a joint effort by Uniqlo’s creative fashion director Nicola Formichetti and milliner Katsuya Kamo, who has worked with the likes of Chanel and Maison Martin Margiela.
The 11 different collections (called “projects”) include HeatTech, which adapts to the wearer’s temperature; Topics, a seasonal collaboration with a guest designer; Denim; and Silk, a new category for next season. The projects are designed to highlight the different fabrications and technological benefits in Uniqlo’s existing offer and have been brought together under the new LifeWear concept: clothes designed for “everyone” with function and the wearer’s needs at the core.
But not “everyone” is familiar with the retailer, let alone its values. When I pass on the Birmingham shopping trip anecdote to Uniqlo chief executive for Europe Berndt Hauptkorn, he insists: “We have to do more of that [marketing]. We have to do better. We will do better. Stores are also brand ambassadors and we have a commitment to open further stores in the UK.”
Achieving this will lead to the ultimate ambition of Hauptkorn, the former chief executive of footwear and accessories brand Bally, who joined Uniqlo in June last year.
“We want to become the number one clothing retailer in the world. We don’t want silver,” he says, leaning in to take a sip of his espresso, followed by a bite of a mini fruit tartlet - his lunch, I suspect.
Currently ranked fourth with annual sales of £7.47bn, according to retail intelligence website Planet Retail, Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing has to overtake GAP (£9.87bn), H&M (£13.48bn) and the mighty Zara parent Inditex (£14.18bn). It begs the question, how? “Your cousins don’t know us. Are they an untapped market?
Yes, I think they are. A businessman, does he know he can shop at Uniqlo? And very soon, we’ll be bringing kidswear to all our stores,” Hauptkorn explains.
“Our marketing approach is more integrated into our stock management now and visual merchandising is being given more attention. And quality is our differentiating factor. Quality is the unifying factor; the challenge is making people aware of that.”
So we’re back to marketing again. “I think they [Uniqlo] still have little brand presence in the UK, with consumers remaining unfamiliar with the proposition other than that it provides basics and good thermals for skiing,” says Honor Westnedge, senior retail analyst at Verdict. “Improved marketing would broaden its reach to those consumers shopping in H&M and Primark for basics and denim, especially since its product quality is better than its value competitors. It is also introducing more fashion influences into both womenswear and menswear and that’s something it needs to promote more - particularly given the value it provides. What it mustn’t do is compromise on quality to improve margins and grow profitability, otherwise it’ll lack the differentiation it currently has.”
But quality is only part of Uniqlo’s message; innovation and technology are also key factors that Uniqlo wants to communicate to its customers. “We start with a functional benefit then break it. For example…,” says Hauptkorn, taking his own jacket and placing it on the table. “You can carry this jacket folded up in a bag when it’s hot.
We’ve reduced the weight by 25% of a normal down-[filled] jacket. But it looks chic,” he adds, pointing to the hidden pocket zips. “You could wear it with Chanel or Zegna.”
Uniqlo design director Yuki Katsuta gives another explanation, highlighting how the Japanese parent company’s name - Fast Retailing - arguably gives the wrong impression of what Uniqlo stands for. “I say we’re slow fashion,” he laughs. “We take a year to develop a new concept. The question for us is how we can lead one year ahead.
Quality means luxury materials and technical fabrics. I never [picture] our customer by age or nationality, but by [having] great taste.”
Katsuta says a big focus for autumn 13 will be on silk, the first time the retailer has incorporated the fabric into its collections.
He wants it to emulate the results of Uniqlo’s cashmere range. “We’ve had great success with cashmere since we launched it 10 years ago. We’ll try to do silk in a big way,” he says, explaining that the retailer will only use the
top two grades of silk - 6A and 5A - to ensure the highest quality. With long-sleeved silk shirts set to retail for £39, it’s a compelling offer indeed, one which the business hopes will boost its UK division.
Fast Retailing posted a UK loss of £9.74m for the year to August 31, 2011. When the full-year results were released in June last year, the business attributed part of the loss to a repositioning in the UK market to move into larger stores and close smaller sites. Those closures resulted in a £1.7m loss, payable on lease termination and onerous lease provision for loss-making stores.
But Hauptkorn is confident the UK arm - the joint second-biggest market alongside the US outside of Japan and Asia - will move into the black imminently. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” he asks. “Our performance in our UK stores has been phenomenal, with double-digit growth.”
He is emphatic that even the weather hasn’t deterred sales. “I’m not so interested in the weather,” he frowns, dismissing the subject. “We always have something to sell.
If it’s warm, we sell T-shirts, if it’s cold we sell jumpers. We concentrate on what we can control.” A retailer that sticks two fingers up to the weather; now that’s bold.