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Consumers outside Japan may consider Uniqlo to be a cutting-edge fast-fashion brand, but the company’s profile on its home turf is definitely more down market.
The brand, owned by Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., operates a network of 789 stores in Japan, and is very much a discount-oriented retailer intent on pushing as much volume through its stores as possible. That means slashing prices to bargain basement levels and distributing sales flyers in the nation’s newspapers to get people in the door.
Although Uniqlo has teamed up with the minimalist Jil Sander for a new brand called +J and it has rolled out some innovative retail concepts over the years — like selling T-shirts in plastic tubes — the brand’s cheap, democratic image is still very much intact. There is even a half-joking expression in Japanese for the shame one feels from being caught in Uniqlo clothing: “Unibare.”
Yet it’s clear that shame isn’t keeping consumers away — especially at a time when shoppers are cutting back on spending. Uniqlo’s sales performance so far this year has been uneven, causing some to question whether the brand’s momentum is faltering, but Fast Retailing still expects to post sales of 815 billion yen, or $9.52 billion, for the fiscal year ending in August. That represents an increase of 19 percent from last year.
And as Uniqlo keeps pace with its fast-fashion rivals, opening stores from China to the U.S., it’s all part of founder and chairman Tadashi Yanai’s long-term goals: to grow Fast Retailing Co. Ltd.’s sales seven-fold to $54 billion by 2020 and to revolutionize the way consumers shop for clothes.
Wal-Mart has been struggling for years to find its apparel comfort zone, veering from basics to trendy looks and back, depending on the strategy du jour. There have been recent efforts to introduce brands with more currency in juniors, including an exclusive Miley Cyrus & Max Azria line and the relaunch of Op.
Wal-Mart offers low-cost basics supported by well-known national brands, some of which — like L.E.I., Starter, Op and Danskin — are exclusive. It also has linked with Norma Kamali to develop a lifestyle brand that includes women’s wear, children’s clothing, accessories, footwear and home.
However, consumers overall seem to reject the idea of Wal-Mart as a place to buy fashion, and the retailer devotes less attention and floor space to apparel than rival Target. As a category, apparel accounts for 10 percent of Wal-Mart U.S.’ $258.3 billion in sales, while Target counts on apparel for 40 percent of sales.
Eduardo Castro-Wright, former vice chairman and ceo of Wal-Mart U.S. stores said in June. The company’s future efforts in apparel, would focus on commodity items such as socks, underwear and T-shirts, which could come in a variety of colors.
But the direction of Wal-Mart’s apparel business remains uncertain. Castro-Wright, who maintains the vice chairman title, on July 29 relinquished his job as ceo of U.S. stores and became president and ceo of global.com and global sourcing, setting in motion a string of resignations that included John Fleming, the architect of the initiative to bring more fashion and interest to the apparel department. Bill Simon was named Castro-Wright’s successor. Also a casualty of the management shuffle was Dottie Mattison, U.S. apparel chief, who left Wal-Mart in June amid sluggish sales. Lisa Rhodes, who was hired in January to oversee merchandising for women’s apparel and jewelry and reported to Mattison, will now take charge of the business. Rhodes’ challenge will be to revive Wal-Mart’s apparel sales by walking the fine line between boring and glitzy.
Forever 21 isn’t so much a fast-fashion store as a fast-fashion supermarket. This is especially true of the retailer’s newly opened 91,257-square-foot Times Square flagship and other large stores.
When an 85,000-square-foot Forever 21 opened in January in a former Mervyns location in Los Cerritos Center in Cerritos, Calif., Forever 21 executives dubbed the format the “emporium” concept, explaining it offers a larger selection of lingerie, swimwear, shoes and plus-size apparel than its average stores of about 40,000 square feet can accommodate. The emporium’s evolution is apparent in the Times Square flagship, where various Forever 21 collections are housed in shop-in-shops. It’s a big improvement over the chaotic environment of smaller, older Forever 21 stores that have little in the way of merchandising or delineation between the different in-house brands.