Uniqlo Moves Beyond Its Japanese Roots

With Three-Phase Marketing Campaign, Manhattan Flagships, Retailer Embraces Its Inner New Yorker

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Kensuke Suwa
Kensuke Suwa

Go big or go home, the saying goes. Uniqlo, the Japanese retailer, seems to have taken that to heart.

This month, Uniqlo opened two stores in New York, representing a combined 153,000 square feet of space. The locations, one at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street , the other at 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, are the retailer's largest and second-largest, respectively, in the world. It's a major statement from a brand that until this month had just one location in the U.S., opened in 2006 in New York's SoHo neighborhood.

"It's definitely a new stage for the Uniqlo brand," said Kensuke Suwa, director-global marketing and communications, during a private tour of the Fifth Avenue location. "In 2006, we communicated the message, "From Tokyo to New York.' We didn't use this, this time. Our time to exaggerate the Tokyo aspect is over."

Indeed, Uniqlo has grown up in these last few years. Founded in 1984, it now operates 1,041 stores in a dozen countries, including flagships in Japan, China, France, the U.K. and the U.S. There are plans to continue opening stores in major U.S. cities, though specific locations haven't been named. Fast Retailing, Uniqlo's parent company, is targeting $59.5 billion in sales and $11.9 billion in profits by 2020.

For this launch, Uniqlo was intent on assimilating itself into the New York community, rather than playing up its Japanese roots.

"We always think we should deliver our message in the appropriate manner, the appropriate media and at the appropriate time. It sounds ordinary; I'm sorry," said Mr. Suwa, who joined the company in 2001 and has led global marketing since 2007.

He elaborated, "Many fashion brands, they do a beautiful picture and a model, and that 's that . But we do try to explain. We want the customer to understand the uniqueness of our brand."

That's evidenced by the three-phase campaign Uniqlo treated New Yorkers to this summer, as well as the way Mr. Suwa pauses during the tour to demonstrate how the fabric on a down jacket stretches and points out the 50 colors of socks offered. A customer-service desk -- the first installed in any store globally -- handles alterations, clothing recycling and holds on items.

The first phase of the campaign highlighted Uniqlo's philosophy "Made for All" with wallscapes covering the construction areas for each new store. They featured the tagline, along with variations on that theme, including "Finer for all," "Greener for all," and "Warmer for all," to name a few.

For Uniqlo, there's no discussion of an 18- to 24-year-old "sweet spot" or any of the other marketing targets fashion retailers often discuss. "We don't try to segment out different targets when we market here," said Mary Lawton, a spokeswoman for the brand. "We're inclusive of everyone."

Many fashion brands create looks each season for customers to emulate, Mr. Suwa said. "We listen to the customers' needs and try to provide them the perfect components. That's why we have so much innerwear," he said, indicating a wall stocked top to bottom with camisoles and bras.

The second phase of the campaign emphasized products. Four pop-up stores were situated around Manhattan, while six mobile "Uniqlo Cubes," each featuring one of four key product categories, appeared at various summer events and street festivals. The cubes launched at the High Line Rink, an outdoor roller-skating rink, sponsored by Uniqlo. Limited-edition merchandise was also sold at the Museum of Modern Art.

The final phase of the campaign put the spotlight on New Yorkers with the "People" campaign, featured in store, print and outdoor executions. Celebrities, such as actress Laura Linney and Tumblr founder David Karp, joined community members, like Suchin Pak, co-founder of the Hester Street Fair, and Greg Breinberg, director of the PS22 chorus. An online destination features each of the participants talking about who they are and what they do.

"We want to be a neighbor, a New Yorker," Mr. Suwa said. "We wanted the customer to feel and experience Uniqlo."

Thus far, they're experiencing it in droves. An invite-only party attracted an estimated 1,700 people. And on opening day at Fifth Avenue, a line stretched for blocks, while inside shoppers snagged $9.90 jeans -- created specially for the opening -- along with cashmere sweaters, Heattech T-shirts and down jackets at promotional prices.

Mr. Suwa spent opening day walking the floor and monitoring the crowds. He worried lines at the 50 cash registers were moving too slowly, despite reports of 15-minute waits -- reasonable, considering the wait to get in the store was at least 45 minutes.

Screens mounted above each register show a continual loop of videos and images, providing at least some entertainment for shoppers. In all, 100 LCD and LED screens are scattered around the Fifth Avenue store, 215 screens fill the 34th Street location. There are 183 fitting rooms between the two stores, along with public well-marked bathrooms, an anomaly in the New York retail scene.

"Uniqlo always tries to improve customer service with every store, every market," said Mary Lawton, a spokeswoman for the brand. "A lot of brands want to brag about how long the line [at the register] is . We'll actually do a lot of run-throughs to make sure that line is as short as possible."

Still, the competition in New York is fierce. H&M, Zara, Mango and Gap all have an established presence. Mr. Suwa, however, isn't worried. "The product is quite different," he said. "It looks quite similar, but it's really different."

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