TOKYO, Japan — For the last two years, the inverted black triangle — Japan's version of the minus sign — has infected monthly earnings reports at most of the nation's retail chains. The global recession has been almost universally bad for the apparel market. Japanese customers are just not spending on fashion like they used to.
There's one exception, of course: Uniqlo.
For the fiscal year ending in August 2009, Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing posted a ¥108.6 billion profit with ¥685 billion sales — outperforming initial projections. The brand's comparable store sales for September 2009 were up 31.6 percent. In October, they were up 35.7 percent.
What's more, these striking sales numbers have manifested themselves visibly in a real life consumer frenzy. Back in October, stylish young people lined up in droves to buy Uniqlo's +J Jil Sander line, while everyday, middle-aged women swarm around the Heat Tech shelves at suburban Uniqlo outlets. On 21 November, two thousand shoppers lined up at the Ginza flagship store at 6am for an early bird sale. They weathered the cold and dark just for a chance to buy slightly cheaper versions of what they can basically buy at any time.
Back in January, BoF commented on Uniqlo's singular success in 2008. Since then, their success has only grown. Tadashi Yanai — Uniqlo founder and Japan's richest man — wants to hit a trillion yen in annual global sales by 2020. That means an expansion beyond the already staggering 780 stores in Japan and 110 stores in other markets around the world. Indeed, if Uniqlo's formula continues to drive these kind of results, the brand could become Japan's first truly global mass retailer.
But what's the secret to Uniqlo's tremendous success?
Falling incomes and a deflationary economy have clearly made Uniqlo's low-prices much more attractive to Japanese customers. But Uniqlo are not simply capitalising on consumers who will settle for 'inferior goods.' The brand is making exactly what people want, at prices that make them feel good.
Perhaps the first secret to Uniqlo's success is its universality. It offers something for almost everyone. Their +J collaboration with Jil Sander won over fashion elites, while pieces created with Tokyo Girls Collection attracted the chestnut hair and elaborate nail art crowd. The Heat Tech line — expected to sell a staggering 50 million units this season — has almost become a winter institution, while the animé-themed T-shirts were a hit with teens. Wives even love to get their bumbling husbands entire wardrobes of weekend wear from Uniqlo.
Second, while Uniqlo markets to a broad range of people, it speaks to different segments in their own language, using every possible media channel. For example, the sensational digital UNIQLOCK was a favorite amongst blog-savvy graphic designers, while the a special advertorial insert, UNIQLOGY, found in every issue of high-fashion magazine Popeye, speaks directly to the men's style set.
After collaborations with Opening Ceremony, Steven Alan, and of course, Jil Sander, Uniqlo has achieved a certain amount of cachet with Japan's fashion-forward crowds. But that doesn't necessarily mean Uniqlo is now 'cool.' In fact, perhaps the brand's most powerful asset is its neutrality. Wearing Uniqlo carries no meaning of its own. It's as close as apparel has ever come to interchangeable LEGO blocks.
For young Japanese consumers in particular, Uniqlo's 'blank slate' approach may be its greatest strength. Indeed, the days of Japanese consumers creating and expressing identity through brand identification is over. Judging by their embrace of Uniqlo, Japanese consumers are definitely not becoming 'individual' in a Western sense — wanting to only buy things no one else has. But they no longer want to be pigeon-holed by consuming a fashion brand that has an overly strong or defining identity.
Uniqlo's widespread success means it's a socially-acceptable brand (a huge concern for Japanese consumers), but other than that, the clothes say almost nothing: no logos, no design flourishes, no distinguishing marks. Uniqlo's advertising rarely tries to inject a particular statement or identity into the brand, unlike the hipster sex of American Apparel or the "classic" preppie vibe of The Gap. Uniqlo is basically a Pantone-hued commodity, making it a perfect fit for both highly sophisticated and completely disengaged fashion consumers.
Even if the economy recovers next year, it's hard to believe Japanese consumers will abandon Uniqlo for their previous pantheon of higher calibre brands. There is a sense that, for the last thirty years, everyone in Japan has paid too much for their clothing. Uniqlo's ubiquity is a sign that Japanese consumers are gravitating towards more rational price points like those seen in North America. It's clear that retailers can no longer force people to buy premium everything.
The amazing thing about Uniqlo is: nobody thinks the brand is offering them an inferior product in exchange for lower prices. Indeed, Uniqlo's "cost-performance" generates tremendous goodwill with its customer base. The brand makes solid, well-designed apparel that keeps up with trends but — unlike H&M and Forever21 — lasts longer than a season.
With Uniqlo, Japanese consumers believe they are getting their money's worth. And that feels very very good.
W. David Marx is a Contributing Editor of The Business of Fashion