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Uniqlo | Reigning Supreme

  • W.David Marx

TOKYO, Japan 2008 turned out to be an incredibly successful year for Uniqlo — and Uniqlo alone. The Japanese media can no longer mention the mass retailer without using the word hitorigachi — meaning "sole winner" or "to reign supreme."

In a toxic retail environment, where most major apparel chains experienced 10-15 percent declines in same-store sales for December, Uniqlo finished the year up 10.3 percent. This came on the heels of Uniqlo's stellar November, with 32.2 percent comparable-store base growth and the largest recorded monthly sales in the brand's history.

These accomplishments allowed parent company Fast Retailing to raise its consolidated operating profit projections for the August 2009 fiscal year to ¥99 billion ($1.1 billion, at current exchange rates)  — an expected 13.2 percent increase from last year. Net sales are currently forecast to hit ¥627 billion ($7.1 billion) — a 6.9 percent increase.

The recession has certainly made Uniqlo's low price clothing an obvious choice for consumers, but economic anxiety cannot fully explain the brand's success. Uniqlo deserves credit for its constant stream of proactive campaigns designed to win over a large number of diverse consumer groups, both in Japan and abroad.

Although Yamaguchi Prefecture-based Fast Retailing has a long history of selling apparel, the idea of Uniqlo as a Gap-style national brand only dates back to 1997, when the company teamed up with ad agencies to refine its image. Only a year into this new strategy, the company hit the jackpot with a widespread consumer boom for its fleece products. Uniqlo lost steam after the trend's end, however, and eventually experienced declining profits in 2002 and 2003. Ever since, the brand has been engaged in a large number of innovative campaigns to win back public interest.

In just the last two years, Uniqlo has made a distinct effort to attract sophisticated customers beyond the middle-mass base. Their award-winning UNIQLOCK became the favorite screensaver of Japan's young PC users thanks to minimalist graphic design, chronological functionality, well-choreographed adorable Japanese female dancers, and original music from producer Fantastic Plastic Machine.

The bilingual free magazine UNIQLO PAPER helped associate the brand with New York hipster culture thanks to the Chloë Sevigny on the cover and photography by Terry Richardson. In Japan, monthly advertorials in men's magazines like Popeye let fashion-forward readers in Japan see new products styled according to the latest fashion principles.

Retail spaces have also played a key part in the brand expansion. Uniqlo's Ginza store — right on the neighborhood's main avenue — raised the brand's profile as a purveyor of trendy fashion rather than generic basics. Last year's UT T-shirt store in Harajuku employed the talents of famed creative director Kashiwa Sato to offer a high-tech shopping experience. T-shirts, including a Pantone-color series, are available in giant vending machine capsules within a space over-run with moving LED message boards.

These appeals to cutting-edge consumers, however, did little to change the brand's reputation of being mostly dedicated to casual menswear. In order to better target women, Uniqlo tied up last September with "real clothes" fashion festival Tokyo Girls Collection and model Yu Yamada to produce a series of sweater dresses for the Shibuya 109 set. The company further targeted young women with new products such as the "beautiful leg" stretch denim (using popular model Norika Fujiwara in the TV commercials) and a "bra-top" that puts brasserie-like pads inside of a tank top.

Despite such narrowly focused marketing efforts, Uniqlo never alienated its middle-market, middle-aged consumers, who mostly shop at the brand for the low prices, laid-back styles, and easy access. The incredibly functional, but not particularly stylish "Heattech" line of winter under items is currently selling-out nationwide despite a production run of an unprecedented 28 million pieces.

Surveys indicate that Japanese consumers are not just buying Uniqlo out of desperation but actively like the brand. In the yearly TBS General Consumer Preference Survey, Uniqlo took the top "preferred brand" ranking in 2008 for women in their 20s at an incredible 41 percent — beating out perennial favorite Louis Vuitton (26.7 percent) for the first time. Just a year before, Uniqlo had only hit 23.1 percent with the same survey group.

Admittedly, most consumers use Uniqlo products as invisible inner-wear rather than key wardrobe items. According to a survey in Nikkei Marketing Journal on January 16, 62 percent of women and 61 percent of men who buy Uniqlo mostly purchase shirts, turtlenecks, and sweaters. Many young customers have ceased thinking the brand is unfashionable, but they still do fear that others will easily identify the Uniqlo in their daily wear. As Japanese fashion blogger Dale wrote on his site Elastic, however,  "Uniqlo is fashion's most famous supporting actor!" In other words, fashionable young consumers rely on Uniqlo to "pad" their daily wardrobes, but then let high-fashion pieces act as the most visible and memorable pieces.

Uniqlo's success has come, of course, at the expense of other retail sectors. According to the previously-mentioned survey in Nikkei Marketing Journal, 45 percent of consumers who increased their shopping at Uniqlo curbed their shopping at department stores and fashion buildings (like PARCO and Marui). This set of consumers have become fully satisfied with Uniqlo's quality and price. Furthermore, compared to "fast fashion" rivals H&M, Zara, and The Gap, Uniqlo has a distinctly Japanese design sensibility that fits the Japanese body and closely responds to the industry's other trends. The items are also so neutral and basic that each consumer segment can adapt the brands to their own specific wardrobe needs: somewhat like American Apparel, but with lower prices and a more accessible brand identity.

Uniqlo currently manufactures over 90 percent of its products in China. Despite general squeamishness about Chinese-made goods and a reputation for being the most "quality-conscious" customers on earth, most Japanese consumers now believe that Uniqlo's cost-performance is quite high. While these Chinese factories seem to be serving Uniqlo well, the company is making an attempt to diversify production capability. Fast Retailing has just inked a deal to create a joint venture in Bangladesh and appears to have high hopes for new factories in the developing nation.

On the retail side, Uniqlo's global roll-out has been relatively successful so far, with branches established in the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Korea, and Hong Kong. The brand will also be moving into Southeast Asia soon, with its first location in Singapore scheduled to open in April. Uniqlo is also actively planning market entry for Germany and Russia. And, with a menswear-only store opening in London's Selfridges, Uniqlo is developing a strong niche position in the West as a supplier of clean and simple "Japanese style" at an affordable price.

With an economy that looks likely to worsen throughout 2009, Japanese customers will certainly be inclined to continue shopping at Uniqlo. If the brand continues to hone its image as a fashion-forward company with high-quality products, Uniqlo will no doubt maintain its status as the top dog in the industry. This is not the fleece boom redux: consumers are not buying Uniqlo to participate in a fad. They are buying Uniqlo because the products meet their standards and fit their current needs.

Uniqlo is on the exact same page as Japanese customers — and that can never be a bad thing.

W. David Marx, Chief Editor of MEKAS, is a Tokyo-based writer and fashion market analyst.

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