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Uniqlo, Bluewater

The fast fashion retailer has opened a store outside London - just. Located in Bluewater, its second foray beyond the capital should prove productive.

Uniqlo’s PR is enthusiastic and informs Drapers that the retailer is opening its first UK store outside London: in Bluewater. This is not strictly true, as the

Japanese fashion chain opened a store in Reading a few years ago and then closed it - owing, presumably, to the fact it proved unsuccessful.

That was back then, however, and before Uniqlo was reborn as fashionista central, the place you went to get your bright, fab and colourful basics before heading elsewhere to splash the savings made on more upscale labels. Now, buoyed by success in London, the decision has been made to open in the provinces once more.

Actually, this is broadly inaccurate too, as the new store in Bluewater serves suburban south London as well as Kent, and could well be regarded as a London store, albeit one that is a mile or so beyond the M25. The point about opening a store this far from central London is that it is something of a leap of faith for Uniqlo, which until now has deliberately restricted its activities to tourists and metropolitan shoppers.

And it looks as if this time the move into a shopping centre that is outside its normal constituency could work. It will also bring the brand to a new customer base: one that is happy to browse

the offers in the Kent mega-mall, but which probably eschews the glamour of the West End, where train fares, congestion charge and expensive parking act as barriers to entry.

Key looks and merchandise mix

Simon Coble, UK chief executive of Uniqlo, says that one lesson that has been learnt during the nearly 10 years since the brand landed in the UK is that if a store is to be successful it needs initial impact. This may be the reason the front of this store is all about opening offers.

Practically, this means that there is a mid-shop display assemblage welcoming shoppers with piles of merino-cashmere blend jumpers, in a variety of colours, at £14.99. Look to the right of this and there’s a unit with cardigans of the same composition at £24.99, and if only 100% cashmere will do, there’s a wall of £49.99 jumpers to the right of this. The left-hand side of the area inside the entrance is about denim, with prices starting at £9.99.

Go deeper into the shop and it’s a casual fest, with hoodies, check flannel shirts, for both sexes, at £24.99, and more knitwear. Things do take a more formal turn when it comes to outerwear, where the type of single-breasted coats worn by second-hand car dealers (yes they are camel-coloured) are on sale at £99.99 for men and women’s woollen coats start at £59.99. If wool isn’t on the agenda, there are ultra-lightweight padded jackets at £39.99.

And then there is HeatTech, the patented fabric used for vests, tights and casualwear that was a major part of Uniqlo’s success last year. This has been moved up a price point and now sells for about £12.99, although styles vary.

Finally, and because it is a store opening, the first autumn +J offer, the range created by Jil Sander, is on sale in Bluewater two weeks prior to its release in the other UK branches.

As Coble puts it: “This is a fashionable, rather than fashion range,” but it looks the part and given the promotional push that it is receiving here, success is almost certain.

Score 8/10

Visual merchandising

Uniqlo’s commercial model is dependent on volume sales, which would make you think stock will be raked over on a daily basis. It is, but it still appears miraculously tidy. A day ahead of opening, everything was beautifully folded and in its right place, but the experience of other branches says that it will remain this way even when the store is mobbed.

Everywhere you look, it is easy to read the offer, owing to the simple merchandising rules. Take the HeatTech offer. Here everything is organised by style and then colour-blocked, with all sizes for each particular style and colour being arranged behind each other. There is really nothing fancy about this, but the simplicity promotes a grab-and-go mentality: the retail equivalent of fast food.

Mannequins are, of course, in evidence and they are well-dressed and certainly add impact to the interior, but it is the stock and the manner in which it is displayed that carries this one.

Score 8/10

Service

Hard to tell, as Drapers visited a day ahead of opening, but there is a large element of self-service about this store. It’s a modus operandi common to all UK Uniqlo stores - staff are on hand in case, God forbid, a style should not have the required size on the shopfloor. If this should happen, it is probable that it will have sold out, as the price of leasing a unit in Bluewater means that extensive stock reserves are not a practical proposition. That said, if this store is like any other in the chain, then the friendly and unobtrusive staff will help. When it comes to a purchase, the hi-tech, supermarket-style checkouts mean you will be processed - and this is probably the appropriate word - rapidly. A generic score then, based on experience elsewhere.

Score 7/10

Store appeal

Coble says: “This store is a move on from White City,” aka Westfield London. Oak plank floors, never a cheap option, a new mezzanine, brushed chrome-surround video screens and the ability to see deep into this 13,000 sq ft store, make this an almost glamorous place in which to buy something inexpensive. “My only regret is that we couldn’t get something bigger,” says Coble, but he says that this point notwithstanding, there is nothing that he would have done differently in the Bluewater store.

This is a simple and elegant response to the challenge of creating an interior that will enable large quantities of merchandise to be shifted, while at the same time looking contemporary.

Score 8/10

Would I buy?

Yes, and often. There is almost nothing to object to about shopping in Uniqlo and this new branch looks no exception. As an illustration of how to get it right, it’s taken Uniqlo a while to arrive at this point, but this store will have shoppers reaching for their wallets and purses.

Score 8/10

Verdict 39/50

Uniqlo Bluewater follows a pattern now well-established in the retailer’s more recently opened UK stores. It looks good, but also has stock that will probably generate relatively high average transaction values and multiple purchases.

Essentials

Location Upper level, Bluewater

Size 13,000 sq ft

Number of floors Two - ground and mezzanine

Outstanding features Video screens and windows that have mannequins but which allow vision deep into the store

Best buy £49.99 cashmere jumpers

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