Mohammed Al Fayed's face must have been a sight the day Japanese
retailer Uniqlo launched its first store in the UK on London's Brompton
Road. Perhaps the Harrods owner was less than amused when he discovered
that the 300-foot long queue of people stretching from number 163 to
165, past Gap, to his exclusive shop was for a clothes store where the
most expensive item (a triple layer 'warmlite' jacket) costs £60.
Probably not the kind of proposition anyone would expect in the heart of
Knightsbridge, where brands such as Karen Millen, Harvey Nichols and
Dominic Chambers, UK marketing director at Uniqlo, remembers the day
well. Journalists and photographers swarmed the doors of the store like
bees around honey. The humming of the Japanese media clicking their
cameras provided the background noise to chairman Tamatsuka Gen's
Chambers says his memories of what happened next are blurred as he was
overwhelmed both by emotion and the 500-strong crowd flocking into the
store. "There was a huge sense of achievement," he says.
The opening marked the successful start of an ambitious expansion
strategy that aims to see at least 50 Uniqlo stores present in the UK by
the end of 2003, as well as its entrance into other European markets.
Despite the pressure to create a strong brand from nothing and the
strain of satisfying expectations after Uniqlo's whirlwind success in
Japan, Chambers appears laid back.
The abrupt exit of Uniqlo managing director in the UK and former Marks &
Spencer executive Steve Pomfret earlier this month would suggest he did
not share Chambers' sentiments. However, Chambers refuses to be drawn on
this subject, declining to comment on whether Pomfret's departure was
the result of a boardroom bust-up or disagreement over strategy.
And there is certainly scope for debate over strategy. Uniqlo wants to
create a new category in British retailing: 'well designed, casual
basics' that form the cornerstone of any wardrobe.
Many retailers have struggled to make the mass-market approach work on
the increasingly fragmented British high street. So why does Uniqlo
think it can succeed where so many others have failed?
Chambers says success hinges on a limited range (there are only 200
items in stock), keeping the pricing low but the quality high,
communicating the brand values effectively and good customer service.
These aspirations sound all too familiar in the retail sector, but
Chambers illustrates his commitment by picking the example of service.
"We have more staff in-store than other players and we offer a free
alteration service," he says, adding that customers are supplied with
bags while they are shopping to give the experience more of a
A bit like Primark, I venture, thinking of that retailer's large green
carriers? Chambers' face screws up slightly in disapproval: "We have a
strong brand, with confidence, that gives the reassurance you don't have
in the discount sector." He struggles to think of a brand that can be
likened to Uniqlo. When pressed, he proposes furniture chain IKEA
because of its "honest" and design-led offer.
"Democracy is at the core of the brand; a product that everyone can
wear," he says. This idea was central to the brief for agency Soul,
which won the Uniqlo account in February following a pitch against a
number of agencies including Mother, Ogilvy & Mather, Circus and Fallon.
Chambers is obviously proud of the advertising, commenting particularly
on the 'skater' ad, which features a woman in her mid-40s, breaking the
mould of using young models to sell clothes. "There's no branding in
most fashion ads, just beautiful people."
"This, to me, is an attractive man," says Chambers flicking through the
pages of a Uniqlo catalogue and stopping at a picture of a smiling, thin
man wearing denim. "He's a greengrocer, he's 54 and he's got a stall at
Watford market." He is just one of the many ordinary people used to
model Uniqlo's wares.
To make the TV ads, Soul worked closely with Japanese agency Thynos.
Next year, Soul's ads will be broadcast in Japan, an achievement which
Chambers describes as the "ultimate compliment" from Uniqlo's hands-on
owner and founder Tadashi Yanai.
Chambers says working for a "remarkably unbureaucratic" company, after a
career at Seagram and Warner Home Video, is refreshing. "Both
organisations had head office-type people with fancy titles that really
didn't do anything," says Chambers. With only four marketers in his
team, everyone has to pull their weight. It's the start-up mentality
that Chambers believes makes Soul a good agency fit.
Uniqlo plans to launch in the Midlands and the North West next
But before it braves the chill up north, it has to prove itself on the
cosmopolitan streets of London. The ultimate test will be whether the
paparazzi catch Al Fayed or Posh popping into Uniqlo for those basics
that everybody needs but are sometimes frustratingly hard to find.
Seagram: graduate trainee to marketing manager for Martell and Absolut,
international brand director for whiskies in Asia Pacific, new product
Marketing director, Warner Home Video
Marketing director, Uniqlo