“Thank you for waiting.”
“Did you find everything you were looking for?”
“Good-bye, we hope to see you again soon.”
Each customer is expected to hear at least four of these phrases (of course, with the advisers’ own names) as they go about their shopping excursion. The second and fifth are repeated because they are required at two points—on the floor, and at checkout.
After this warm-up, the advisers put away their notebooks and break off to their floors, giving themselves a round of applause.
At 9:45, the music starts, piped in via a company called Activaire, which also services the stores in the U.K. and France. They offer a “global music palette” meant to be familiar, optimistic, and vaguely international.
At ten o’clock, the doors open, and customers begin their assault. As for Ahmed, he has yet to catch up, and already shoppers are pulling pairs of jeans down in bunches and heading up to the fitting room. He keeps folding.
To many Japanese, Uniqlo’s success abroad is a bit of a puzzle. Most of the Japanese stores are small shops in malls or roadside outlets. The brand reached a peak there around 2000, when its ubiquity started to become an object of derision. “They were unisex, suburban, and everywhere,” says Murata. “In the early 2000s, when the fleece was hot, they sold 26 million of them in one year. Japan’s population is only 120 million. People started calling them ‘Unibore.’ ”
Uniqlo made its first attempts to expand abroad in 2001, opening 21 stores in England and, later, three in the U.S. The majority of the English stores were small storefronts in the suburbs, and the three American stores opened in malls in New Jersey. Within five years, Uniqlo had shut many of them down, including all three in New Jersey. “They just did not work,” says Shin Odake.
Yanai, though clearly obsessed with control, is also a deeply pragmatic manager, and fascinated by failure. (His autobiography is called One Win, Nine Losses.) In 2005, he announced a reversal of strategy for international expansion: The suburban stores in Japan would stay, but growth abroad would be focused in splashy stores in the major cities of each continent. Yanai hired a creative team to rebrand the company abroad, including Kashiwa Sato of Samurai, Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall, and Markus Kiersztan of MP Creative. The relaunch of Uniqlo would start with the New York store.
Uniqlo works quickly, and the transformation was surprisingly fast. “In a normal company,” says Odake, “you would spend a lot of time and money investigating how it would all work.” But Uniqlo designed and built the Soho store in about eight months, with 150 workers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Unlike many retail flagships, the store is purposely non-referential. It’s not Hollister’s fantasy version of California, or Ralph Lauren’s fantasy of Waspworlds anywhere. “Uniqlo is the brand that happens in a nonexisting space,” says Kiersztan. “It’s a white box, always on a white background. It’s not a lifestyle brand.” The drama of the store, therefore, would come from the overwhelming sense of plenitude.
While he was working on the design, Katayama focused his thoughts by making a poster from a photo he had found of a store in London that had covered a five-story building with raincoats. And Uniqlo’s Soho store is a surprisingly literal extrapolation of that poster: The store is wallpapered with thousands of Uniqlo items stacked floor to ceiling, arranged in a rainbow of colors. “A lot of it is a bit of an illusion,” says Kiersztan. “When you think of stacking up cashmere sweaters, maybe you have 65 colors, but you make it look like you have a thousand by repeating stacks. Or when you walk in, there’s the glass display—we call it the ‘fish tank’—with 36 spinning dummies, to give the consumer the feeling that there’s a lot to be found.” When store managers noticed that the towers of jeans sagged at the top, cardboard-backed dummies were inserted on the highest rows.
Soon after the Soho store opened, management noticed a blip in the sales statistics that prompted another midcourse correction: The styles of clothes Uniqlo had designed for America—an approximation of the Gap, with a looser, relaxed-in-the-middle fit—weren’t selling. Uniqlo doesn’t do market research, so instead they started to ship over smaller, Japanese sizes, and when those items started moving, they resized the American orders. Uniqlo had stumbled on an underserved market: the urban basics shopper.
You can’t walk into the Gap, or even the newly hipsterized J.Crew, and find yourself a wide selection of skinny jeans. This is because, with the notable exception of American Apparel, most American retailers have designed their small, medium, and large sizes to approximate the physiques (and tastes) of the general American population. Most of these customers do not want their basics fitted. What Uniqlo discovered, however, is that there are a lot of people who do—especially in New York. “People were trying to get that kind of look downtown, but weren’t completely satisfied,” says Mark-Evan Blackman, chair of the Menswear Design Department at F.I.T. “That customer essentially walked across the street and into Uniqlo clothing.”