While it is still only half the size of Inditex in terms of total sales, Uniqlo’s Japanese parent company Fast Retailing is intent on closing the gap with the world’s two largest clothing retailers, H&M in second place and the Spanish giant firmly in the top slot. Inditex will be the focus of a Strategy Spotlight next month
Continuing to grow Uniqlo’s international business, with a particular focus on Europe, is a key part of Fast Retailing’s forward strategy.
Our Retail Week analysts have identified five key factors that will drive international growth.
1. LifeWear concept
Driven by its LifeWear concept for everyday clothes, Uniqlo offers unique products made from high-quality, highly functional materials. It keeps prices down by managing the whole process from procurement and design through to production and retail sales.
The retailer describes Lifewear as “high-quality, long-lasting clothing created for regular people’s lives and needs”. This also gives Uniqlo a strong sustainability proposition.
Its mix of good quality basics, collaborations and technical clothing has helped it establish its own niche within the clothing sector, and it enjoys broad appeal across a wide range of age groups through technical clothing such as its Heattech thermalwear range and AIRism, a stretchy cooling fabric.
2. Building a global brand
Of Fast Retailing’s 2,400 or so Uniqlo-branded outlets – smaller fascias include Theory, Comptoir des Cotonniers and Gu – a third are still in its native Japan.
But while the Japanese network has been contracting, Uniqlo has been expanding rapidly in most of its other international markets and is now accelerating expansion in North America and Europe as it strives to become a truly global brand.
From this year, Uniqlo is targeting 100 store openings a year in Greater China – which now has significantly more stores than the domestic market – and 70 to 80 in South East Asia and Oceania.
It has also upped opening targets for North America and Europe to 30 stores a year in each region.
Uniqlo sees its presence in Europe as critical to building its global brand. Chief executive Tadashi Yanai says: “I would argue that you can’t achieve worldwide success without building a strong brand in Europe.”
It is doing this by focusing on large, standout stores, in prime locations across major European cities and expanding its ecommerce operations.
It opened its first store in Poland in 2022 and will launch in Luxembourg this year.
Increasing the brand’s global popularity is also a major priority. While Uniqlo is a household name in Japan, it has yet to reach this status in many of its international markets. In the UK, for example, it has a very low profile outside of London and this will be hampering ecommerce growth.
3. Strengthening local capabilities
Citing his ‘global is local, local is global’ mantra, Yanai says Uniqlo needs to pursue global and local management in tandem.
This approach was accelerated during the pandemic, when markets such as Hawaii and South East Asia, which had previously relied heavily on sales to Japanese tourists, focused their attention on local customers as travel restrictions put paid to the tourist trade.
A localised management team would also have helped to avoid Uniqlo’s disastrous initial foray into the UK market in the early 2000s when it opened more than 20 stores in quick succession before retrenching back to the London area in the face of mounting losses from 2005.
The brand currently trades through 17 UK stores, including its first stores outside Greater London in Manchester and Watford.
4. Engaging through stores
The retailer’s stores showcase the innovative elements of its clothing – functionality, technological innovation and design.
Uniqlo’s more recent London openings – its first joint site with sister brand Theory on Regent Street and its Covent Garden store – highlight how the retailer is putting customer engagement front and centre as it expands the store network.
Speaking to Retail Week on the opening of its Uniqlo Covent Garden store in April, chief operating officer for Uniqlo Europe Allessandro Dudech said it aims to “elevate” the shopping experience.
As well as a partnership with London-based Japanese Tearoom Katsuke 100 for its first in-store tearoom, Uniqlo has also partnered with Transport for London to offer a range of TFL-branded products alongside UTme!, Uniqlo’s bespoke T-shirt service.
Dudech says: “The shopfloor is the beating heart of the company because that’s really where the brand proposition comes to life.
“It’s also a good opportunity to really showcase what we’re doing to help from an environmental perspective; it is a showcase of everything the brand stands for.”
As such, the launch of its joint store with Theory last year saw its first Re:Uniqlo repair and customisation studio, while the retailer also invited members of the Tate Collective to submit artworks displayed in the store under the theme of ‘the spirit of London’.
Developing technology that engages with customers and eases the shopping experience is a priority. The roll-out of self-checkout terminals that use RFID technology rather than products having to be scanned is a prime example of this. RFID checkouts are now being used in all Uniqlo’s UK and European stores.
5. Catching up in ecommerce
Uniqlo has been behind the curve in terms of ecommerce and UK fulfilment still looks weak in comparison with its rivals.
Its aim is to unify its channels. By integrating its physical and ecommerce operations more closely, it can maximise the click-and-collect opportunity. It is also adapting its supply chain so that online orders can be fulfilled from stores.
But the southern bias for the store network means there are swathes of the UK where the brand is unknown, so it faces the dual task of heightening its profile to drive online sales and improving its delivery-to-home options to drive digital sales in regions where it doesn’t have a physical presence.
Strengthening its role as an information-sharing platform through Uniqlo Live Station and other services is also a priority.
Uniqlo Live Station enables customers to purchase while watching a live broadcast and chat with staff in the studio while they shop.
Uniqlo told Retail Week: “This Live Station service has enabled us to develop a more ‘colloquial commerce’ with our fans and customers. This ability to engage directly with customers to understand their wants and needs is particularly high value.”
A model that Uniqlo now wants to replicate in Europe is that of its North American division where the retailer has nurtured extremely close links between its online and physical store operations.
With Uniqlo continuing to focus on high-profile flagship stores across Europe, this strategy will be critical to reach those shoppers that are not located in close vicinity to a store.