Uniqlo shines out among stricken retailers
A sudden cold snap, a cartoon robot, T-shirts sold in tubes, and a stylish range of high tech thermal underwear have provided a rare glint of success on Japan’s increasingly dreadful retail scene, and sharpened Uniqlo’s bid for global domination of low-price fashion.
Investors in the company now believe that Uniqlo management is looking seriously at acquisitions in the UK, where it already has a foothold, and in the US, where asset prices have fallen heavily in recent weeks. A massively strengthened yen rate against sterling and the US dollar are expected to accelerate plans, which are expected to focus on brands with a strong name for design, rather than low price.
With all signs now pointing to Japan being in its sharpest recessionary plunge since the Second World War, the Uniqlo chain of low-priced clothing has scored a spectacular hit: Fast Retailing, the parent company of the brand, said yesterday that same store sales soared over 32 per cent in November, smashing through to a record high.
In the same period, footfall across its store network surged nearly 26 per cent as millions of Japanese consumers tightened their purse strings and simultaneously ditched their hunger for more famous - and more expensive - brands.
The company remains in aggressive expansion mode. It now has a worldwide network of 54 stores outside Japan. Britain, France and the US are all counted among countries that Uniqlo considers converts to the brand. The company has pushed into other Asian markets and is poised to take on Russia: a country that has its own strong views on how to dress fashionably in sub-zero temperatures. Tadashi Yanai, the president of Fast Retailing who has set himself a Y1 trillion annual sales target by the end of 2010, admitted in a recent interview that the company needed to go on the merger trail in the US and Europe to achieve those numbers.
Market analysts at Nomura said that the company was positioned to behave as a contrarian indicator for dwindling activity elsewhere on the Japanese high street. The surprisingly strong performance at Uniqlo, they said, was “hard evidence” that the global recession is biting the Japanese retail scene more fiercely and more rapidly than the market had expected.
In a research note published yesterday, Seiji Shiraishi, an economist at HSBC, warned markets to abandon hopes that the Japanese consumer would ride to the world’s rescue as a force for growth or stability. In a stark warning to clients, he said that Japanese personal consumption has only declined once since the end of the American occupation in 1955, but that markets should expect it to do so again in 2009.
But the November surge in sales was not repeated across other Japanese discount clothing chains. Uniqlo, said analysts, has managed to hit a “winning formula” of using high performance material in unique pieces of clothing: although the products are famously low price, it has effectively managed to kill any snobbery that would mark it out as “cheap”. These factors, said KBC’s Japan retail analyst, were combined with a very slick and effective marketing campaign and “shot the lights out” of the market now that people need to stay warm on a budget.
Even before the winter chills set in, Uniqlo had experimented with other retail tricks – one of the more successful involved devoting entire stores to T-shirts with designs based on nostalgic cartoons and comics and sold in plastic tubes.
Uniqlo, as a brand, forged its reputation in Japan in the late 1990s when it released a range of cheap winter fleeces and down-stuffed jackets. Interest in the fleeces fizzled badly as the Asian Financial Crisis crawled into memory and people felt wealthier. As more bullish times returned, Japanese drifted from Uniqlo and pitched their ambitions higher up the price scale: but now, in a country suddenly faced with mass layoffs among temporary workers, frozen wages and dropping winter temperatures, Uniqlo has succeeded in raising the average spend among shoppers entering its stores.