Expansion-Minded Uniqlo Aims Big

At 89,000 sq. ft., Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue flagship is its largest store in the world. An escalator takes customers from the entry straight to the third level, the main selling floor.

From dazzling LCD/LED video displays to rotating mannequins to staircases with color-changing LED lights, Uniqlo’s Manhattan flagship is massive in scope and bold in design.

The three-level, 89,000-sq.-ft. store is the largest Uniqlo outlet in the world. It’s a big store for a company with big ambitions: Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing Co., the world’s fourth-largest apparel retailer, is targeting $50 billion in global sales by 2020.

To meet its goal, the company has embarked on an aggressive program to expand Uniqlo from its current 1,041 locations to 4,000 worldwide. Expansion in the United States figures prominently in its strategy.

“We see great potential in this market,” said Shin Odake, CEO, Uniqlo USA. “By 2020, we hope to have opened in major cities across the country.”

The Uniqlo flagship has a high-tech vibe and ultra-modern look. It has 100 fitting rooms, 50 checkouts, 300 LCD and LED screens, and four glass elevators (complete with custom video installations).

“It’s a futuristic design that shows the future of Uniqlo,” Odake said.

The store’s clean, modern aesthetic is in sync with the goods on display. With its “Made for All” mantra, Uniqlo is known for its affordable prices and emphasis on core basics. The brand is counting on its product innovation to give it a competitive edge.

“Our approach to product is a little different from other competitors,” Odake explained. “Everyone is focusing on trend. But our focus is on how to bring innovation to core basics. Another focus is product quality.”

Among the merchandise collections highlighted in the flagship are the new Uniqlo Innovation Project (IPJ) brand of high-performance, active, everyday sportswear, which includes zippered jackets that can be torn open. The retailer’s signature moisture-trapping and heat-generating Heattech line is spotlighted in a tunnel-like department set off with mirrored ceilings and an LED reader board.

The merchandise is made with an attention to detail unusual for a brand that is not upscale. A winter parka, for example, has pockets large enough to accommodate gloved hands.

Uniqlo followed its Fifth Avenue debut with a 64,000-sq.-ft. store in Manhattan’s Herald Square area. The two high-profile locations will expose the brand to a much wider range of shoppers than Uniqlo’s only other U.S. outpost, in Manhattan’s SoHo, which opened in 2006.

Odake said the company has not yet determined the exact number of U.S. stores it will open. But he noted that Uniqlo’s U.S. operations eventually will be run by Americans.

“We think that’s important for success,” Odake said. “We have to hire people who resonate with the Uniqlo concept and train them.”

Fifty of the employees for the Fifth Avenue and Herald Square stores were flown by Uniqlo to Japan for a six-month manager training program prior to opening.

“It was a challenge for them in some respects,” Odake said, “but it was good in that it gave them the opportunity to see our operations firsthand.”

The role of store manager is a critical one at Uniqlo.

“We give them a lot of authority and expect them to be very proactive,” Odake said. “To us, the store manager is like the CEO of a company. We also give a lot of authority to store associates. We want the same type of culture here.”

Customer service is a top priority at Uniqlo. Odake explained that in Japan, customers expect good service — be it a discount chain or an upscale boutique. Uniqlo hopes to upgrade shoppers’ expectations here also.

“I’m happy we can revolutionize the retail business here by offering great service and moderate price points,” Odake said.

mwilson@chainstoreage.com