Uniqlo has opened its first Belgian store in Antwerp today, but "additional stores in Belgium are definitely a possibility". Another step towards the ambitious COO Takao Kuwahara's goal to make the Japanese chain the world's biggest fashion chain.
Unique experience and local faces
Belgium is only the fifth European country to be able to welcome the chain, following Britain, France, Russia and Germany. Uniqlo's first store in the Benelux is located on Antwerp's main shopping street Meir, in a 1,320 sqm building (with two floors and a mezzanine). The chain hopes to have a unique shopping experience, including a colour-changing staircase , revolving mannequins and streaming LED messages.
Even though Uniqlo owner, Fast Retailing, is the fourth largest fashion retailer in the world (trailing Zara owner Inditex, H&M and Gap), it is relatively unknown outside of Japan. That is why the chain launched a marketing campaign for its Belgian store with 6 local ambassadors. This way, Uniqlo wants to get the message across that everyone is welcome in its store. "We focus on everyone, including children, men and women. Age does not matter, which is one of the differences with Zara, which is mainly focused on younger people."
Ambition to become the largest
While more than half of Uniqlo's worldwide store network of 1,600 stores is currently located in Japan, the forecast is that its foreign stores will become more important than its Japanese stores within a year's time. "We use the franchising model in Japan, but we will not do that abroad as that would make it more difficult to bring our message across."
The fast-growing Fast Retailing group (including GU, Helmut Lang, JBrand, Princess tam tam, Comptoir des Cottoniers and Theory) needs an international expansion to reach its ambition of becoming the world's largest fashion retailer by 2020. Last year, it managed a 1.38 trillion yen (10 billion euro) turnover in its 2014/2015 fiscal year, making it the fourth largest fashion retailer.
Uniqlo currently only has an online European presence in the United Kingdom, but will also launch an English site for the rest of Europe soon (followed by "versions for the different local languages" later). The online presence does not mean the chain will put a stop to offline growth: "Our expansion is based on two pillars. We want to be present in all important European cities. People who want to buy clothes, want to feel them and you can only do that in a store. On top of that, you cannot create a big experience online, something you can do in stores."
Prices online and in stores are the same. "Otherwise, it would be very confusing", according to Kuwahara. Prices between stores will also be the same: a sweater in Antwerp will cost as much as in Paris or online.
No "own stores" on purpose
Kuwahara feels Uniqlo's business model is based on 6 things, but mostly on reasonably priced clothing of good quality. Another item is the worldwide expansion (with Belgium as the 17th country, but he also mentioned other countries will soon follow). Uniqlo also only rents its stores and never buys any buildings, because it wants to save costs and be flexible as well.
Its products are also always destined for worldwide sale, but "we will make local adjustments. Clothing for Western stores will generally be bigger than clothing for Asian people", Kuwahara said. To expand its product range, Uniqlo is collaborating with external designers, like a collection from Lemaire. "It enables us to attract a new audience, people we usually do not reach."