Saturday, July 20, 2013

Can Uniqlo Succeed in the US?

Uniqlo, a division of Fast Retailing, is the largest apparel retailer in Asia.   Headquartered in Japan, Uniqlo (pronounced You-nee-klo) actually manufactures a majority of its clothes in China.   Known for its affordable bright-colored basic, the company aspires to be the largest apparel retailer in the world.  However, Uniqlo has encountered challenges expanding into Europe and the United States.   The firm opened a number of stores in the UK a decade ago, but then had to close many of them a few years later.  Still today, it has not been able to match the dominant home-grown rivals in Europe: Zara and H&M.   In the United States, Uniqlo operates seven flagship stores (3 in Manhattan, 3 in surrounding communities, and 1 in San Francisco).   The firm plans to open 10 more stores in the United States this fall.  However, Business Week recently noted that Uniqlo's July earnings report noted underwhelming performance in the US operations.  

What's the challenge for Uniqlo?   Clearly, cracking the already crowded casual apparel market in the US will be difficult for any new player.   Many companies jockey to attract budget-conscious young consumers interested in fashionable apparel.   Promotions and discounts are rampant, making it hard to sustain gross margins.  Moreover, young consumers prove incredibly fickle at times; today's high-flying retailer can quickly become yesterday's news.  

Uniqlo may be facing another challenge though.  It may not have a clear brand identity.  In this article for, Kerry Folan argues that Uniqlo has not quite decided what it wants to be: a fashion brand such as Zara or H&M, a "blue jeans and basics" company such as the Gap, or a performance/technology apparel player such as Under Armour or even Lululemon.  The company has had incredible success with performance apparel actually, though many know it for the affordable and bright casual basics stacked to the ceiling at its flagship stores. For instance, the company's Heattech apparel has sold over 100 million units.  Heattech apparel actually helps to warm you up and keep you that way if you are outdoors on a cold day. 

Many Americans do not know much about Uniqlo.  I would concur with Kerry Folan's assessment.  The firm needs to establish a clear brand identity if it is to succeed in the United States.  Zara has excelled by entering the US with a clear positioning as a "fast fashion follower" with reasonably affordable price points.  Uniqlo must make some clear and perhaps difficult choices.  It would help if they clarified that brand identity before the next wave of new store openings, many in high rent urban locations. 

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