Some observers are skeptical that Yanai will be able to expand Uniqlo indefinitely under his urban megastore model. “Giant flagships work for New York and L.A.,” says Janet Kloppenburg, an independent analyst who covers the retail sector. “But there’s no way Uniqlo is going to find 760 places in the U.S. to put stores like that. At some point they’re going to have to get down into the malls.” The question then will be whether Uniqlo’s New York success will have improved the company’s standing with a customer that had rejected it once before.
Uniqlo is regularly hiring for its Soho store and will soon be staffing up at Fifth Avenue, and so it conducts three group interviews a week. By three o’clock on this Friday, seventeen potential new hires have assembled on the mezzanine. Customer-service manager Jennifer Case takes them up to the training room, where new hires go through a withering orientation. There is a chart on the wall detailing what a new hire should know, when he should know it, and how much time it will take him to learn it. The first skill is the operation of the name badge, which should be mastered in five minutes. (Wear it always.) The checklist proceeds through fixture adjustment, bagger training, and opening procedures. There is a television for showing videos about the behaviors and folding technique.
All new employees, even experienced ones, require training. Colleen Fagan is a “visual manager” who worked at smaller boutiques before coming to Uniqlo. Although she has spent years presenting clothes, she says, “I pretty much learned everything over when I got here.”
Take folding, which Uniqlo treats as if it were a scholarly discipline, with specific rules, best practices, and mandated times for completion. Employees at most retail stores fold with the assistance of a plastic board, but Uniqlo employees are taught the “body fold” technique and are expected to fold six shirts in one minute. The staff is told to practice this on their own, after work, until they get it right.
They are tested regularly.
A poster in every manager’s office reads, “ALWAYS FOLLOW COMPANY DIRECTION. DO NOT WORK IN YOUR OWN WAY.”
Cashing out is a timed art at Uniqlo, too; advisers must complete every transaction in less than 60 seconds. The other week after work, Lauren Venatucci, a manager in the women’s department, ran a cash-out contest. Advisers competed to ring up clothes while properly deploying the six standard phrases. The prize was an iPod, and the winner clocked in at 40 seconds.
“You had to smile too,” says Venatucci. “We tell advisers that you have to smile until you feel like you’re crazy.”
Back in the training room, Jennifer Case leads the prospects through a quick first look, then chooses eight for the next round. Brink then spends just a few minutes interviewing each one.
“You don’t need much,” she says later. “You can just tell by how they’re sitting, how they respond.”
Many of the prospects are from the visual arts. One long-haired applicant studied Uniqlo in art school. Another studied graphic design for two years. A third is a photographer and wants to be a creative director on fashion shoots. She currently works for American Apparel.
“How’s that going?” asks Brink.
“Not great. My manager turned 21 five days before I did.”
The next applicant Brink speaks to works at Hollister. The following one at Strawberry. They are all a bit obsessed with Uniqlo. After the interviewees have filed out, Case confides, “We’re getting a ton of people from the Gap, Forever 21, and Hollister.”
Uniqlo is hardly the only foreign clothes retailer to crack New York. Within a few hundred feet of the Uniqlo store on Broadway there are three distinct storefronts for Sweden’s H&M, as well as the Spanish retailers Zara, Mango, and Desigual, and the English brands Topshop and AllSaints (scheduled to open this month). All of these brands sell what analysts call “mass fashion.” Built on nearly instantaneous supply chains, the stores deliver the look of the moment, often stolen right off the runway, and for pennies on the dollar. A manager at the Broadway Zara, for instance, can let headquarters know that customers want military-themed peasant blouses, and in fifteen days they will be in the store. The average Zara customer doesn’t expect to wear what she buys more than about ten times.
Uniqlo customers expect to wear their clothes until they wear out. In that sense, the company is in the same business as deep discounters like Old Navy. “They’re in the basics business,” says Mickey Drexler, who ran the Gap in its heyday and has steered J.Crew through a strong five years since taking it over. “And they do it much better than anyone else can. I know Tadashi, and I watched him openly set out to learn from American companies. Now, Uniqlo has a great piece of real estate, and they’re the best sellers of cheap, well-made goods around.”