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As US Retailers Retreat, a Japanese Chain Sees an Opening

Stephanie Clifford|The New York Times
Wednesday, 23 May 2012 | 3:49 PM ET
Uniqlo
Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images
Uniqlo

Many American retailers are cutting back at shopping malls. Chains like Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch, Coldwater Creek and Talbot’s say they have too many stores at too many malls. Hundreds of stores are on the chopping block.

Now, that pain is being seen as an opportunity — for some foreign retailers.

Uniqlo, the Japanese basics brand, is starting aggressive growth plans at shopping malls that are expected to include 20 to 30 new stores a year over the next eight years.

In its first move, Uniqlo, which has three stores in New York City and one opening this fall in downtown San Francisco, has signed a lease at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J. The store will be in a space previously occupied by an Old Navy store.

Other international retailers, from the low end, like Massimo Dutti and Topshop, to the high end, like the PPR brands Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, are also adding new stores in the United States.

Over all, the retail real estate market is starting to recover from the recession. Rents rose in the first quarter and retail vacancies declined for the first time since 2005 as some companies opened new stores and expanded existing ones, according to the research firm Reis.

“This is a country of shopaholics,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail group at Douglas Elliman, who is handling inquiries from retailers in Australia, New Zealand and Canada about opening in this country.

Overseas companies are looking to the American market because of relatively easy access to credit, fewer regulations than some other countries, cheaper rents because of the recession and the promise of getting Wall Street’s attention, she said. And many shoppers here like the panache of clothing from abroad.

“It’s a fickle market here — the consumer always wants something new,” Ms. Consolo said.

Uniqlo is drawing particular attention because it has succeeded in selling basic and affordable clothing, a category that American companies like Gap and Old Navy once dominated. But it failed in a previous effort to expand into American shopping malls. In 2006, it closed stores in three malls in New Jersey it had opened in 2005.

This time, company officials said, they have learned from their mistakes — most notably, a recognition that the Uniqlo (pronounced YOU-nee-klo) brand needed a bigger introduction in the United States. Last time, the retailer leased standard-size mall locations — about 7,000 square feet each — that did not distinguish the brand from competitors. The new Garden State Plaza space, by contrast, is 43,000 square feet, and it has external exposure, meaning Uniqlo’s signs can be seen from a nearby highway and the mall’s parking lot.

“Our brand is still not a household name, so we need a bigger box than some of our competitors,” said Shin Odake, the chief executive of Uniqlo’s United States division.

Well saturated in Japan, Uniqlo is now posting most of its growth overseas. Fast Retailing, the Uniqlo parent company based in Tokyo, said sales in Uniqlo’s international division grew 68 percent to 84.8 billion yen ($1.07 billion) in the first half of its fiscal year, from September to February. Profits increased 45 percent to 11.4 billion yen for non-Japan stores in that period.

Uniqlo posted a loss at its United States stores for that period, but analysts say the region is crucial for the company’s growth.

“They need to have a competitive positioning in the world’s largest market,” said Masafumi Shoda, an analyst at Nomura Securities, in an e-mail.

Unlike other low-priced international brands, like Zara, H&M and Mango, which rush fashionable items into stores weeks after trends are seen on runways, Uniqlo’s clothes are simple. There is “a strong emphasis on fabrication,” said Faye Landes, a retail analyst with Consumer Edge Research.

Uniqlo is best known for its solid and striped basics like T-shirts, shorts and cashmere sweaters, available in a wide spectrum of colors. Uniqlo emphasizes high-tech fabric, for example, in a moisture-wicking T-shirt it sells in summer. And prices are low — T-shirts start at $9.90, and cashmere sweaters at $79.90.

Yasunobu Kyogoku, chief operating officer for Uniqlo’s United States division, said the company was able to get prices that low because it did not change its merchandise plans based on the latest fashion fad. Instead, it books factory capacity in advance, and produces garments at a steady pace year-round, rather than rushing to produce trendy items from specialty factories.

“Typically in retail there’s a seasonality to the products you sell and therefore a seasonality to factories — when they’re running at full capacity and when they’re not,” Mr. Kyogoku said. “To be able to balance out, over 365 days a year, full capacity, you’re able to create more efficiencies.”

After retreating from its last foray into American malls, Uniqlo took a different approach, opening a store in New York’s high-traffic SoHo district in 2006 and adding two more stores in New York last year, on 34th Street and on Fifth Avenue. The stores, filled with spinning mannequins and steel and white décor, serve in part as an advertisement for Uniqlo.

And the company almost quadrupled its spending on advertising in the United States in 2011 versus 2010, to $8.3 million, according to Kantar Media, with ads pushing its prices. With the promotions started, Uniqlo executives said it was time to re-enter malls.

“If you have just another store in a shopping mall, there’s no reason for a customer to buy at your store because we are selling clothes, and it is not so much different from the clothes that other people are selling,” Mr. Odake said. “So unless the customer knows about your brand or what the company stands for, there is no reason for the customer to shop at your store.”

To hit the company’s stated target of $10 billion in sales in the United States by 2020, “we need to go where the customer is, and in the United States, malls are the premier location where Americans shop,” Mr. Kyogoku said. The Uniqlo executives declined to discuss specifics about the expansion plans, beyond saying they also included stores in other big American cities. The company is also working on an e-commerce site in the United States, the executives said.

“Even though I think it may be too early to go to mall locations,” Mr. Shoda, the retail analyst, said, the company “needs actual trials in there.”

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