When the doors of its new global flagship store open at 6 a.m. on Black Friday, kicking off its first holiday sales season on Fifth Avenue and 53rd street, UNIQLO will face a test of how well it can compete in the big leagues against the likes of Macy’s and Lord & Taylor.
At the start of a holiday shopping season when consumer confidence is bleak,UNIQLO’s reputation for high quality, classic cuts at low prices could position the company for an unusually strong showing.
“Our surveys show that who is performing particularly well are discounters that drive their marketing around price,” said Rebeccah Marion Flach, a spokeswoman for the Retail Council of New York State. A recent survey of almost 5,000 members, released by the organization last month, showed that despite wavering consumer confidence, 62 percent of retailers anticipate sales for the upcoming holiday season will be the same as or better than 2010.
“We’re expecting a decent holiday season; it won’t be fantastic,” said Flach.
Forty nine percent of survey participants predicted that the biggest deciding factor for their customers, when selecting gifts, will be price; 27 percent of retailers said they believe good quality merchandise is a deciding factor.
This could be good news for UNIQLO. With cashmere sweaters selling for $89.95 in 25 different colors, for instance, UNIQLO is in a good position to attract holiday shoppers like Nicole Reiman, 15, from Philadelphia and her mother, Sue, customers who were visiting New York earlier this month. They said they heard about the store by word of mouth. Nicole Reiman’s UNIQLO shopping bag contained two cashmere sweaters and a pair of “jeggings,” a hybrid of leggings and jeans. Among her usual shopping destinations are Hollister and Forever 21.
“I would come back, especially for back to school and Christmas shopping,” Sue Reiman said, looking at her daughter Nicole, who studied with satisfaction the new additions to her wardrobe, neatly packaged in the basic white uniform shopping bags, marked by the signature red logo, that makes any UNIQLO customer easily identifiable from a mile away. Especially so, given the immense advertising campaign that the brand has implemented in the past months throughout New York City: inside subway cars, buses, inside station terminals and more boldly, billboards all over Manhattan.
Yet, despite the company’s visual omnipresence throughout the city, its corporate policy forbids disclosing sales figures and future.
“We are very happy with the performance of both the Fifth Avenue global flagship, as well as the Thirty-fourth Street flagship locations that opened only a week apart,” Mary Lawton, head of UNIQLO’s public relations in the United States, wrote in an email. “We do not give specific sales figures or facts. However, I can say that the best selling items were the UNIQLO core items that were on promotion during the opening.” Those sale items included cashmere sweaters, Premium Ultra-light down jackets, “Heattech” products and denim jeans at $9.99.
Likewise, Thomas O’Malley, manager of the 89,000-square-foot flagship store with nearly 1,000 employees, said could not reveal specific sales figures, but said,“UNIQLO’s intrusion into the upper realms of Manhattan has been warmly welcomed.”
O’Malley, who said that the store has experienced the success it anticipated since its opening on Oct. 14, is particularly proud of the way the new store has been received by shoppers. With minimalism as the theme of the store’s design, the look of the multistory structure is in stark contrast to how it is filled: with clothing from floor to ceiling. And each garment is “Made for All,” aiming to cater to the masses.
And according to O’Malley, the store’s prosperity is owed not only to the sales staff but also to UNIQLO’s marketing team, who are responsible for the immense presence of the brand, above and underground in New York.
“The success we’ve had so far is a testament to not only us, but to our marketing team,” he said.
The store’s slogan “Made for All” is also a central part of UNIQLO’s marketing strategy, O’Malley said. “We really believe in it,” he said. “You have a twelve-year-old come in here and pick something up for a birthday, or an eighty-five-year-old choosing something for a retirement party.”
Manhattan resident Ellen Imbimbo, who said she is older than 60, said, “I have to test the clothes. The quality of the wool is different to what I’m used to.” She said she hopes that the low prices won’t compromise quality on the t-shirt, sweater and “Heattech” trousers that she bought on Saturday. Imbimbo said she was eyeing four additional items. But with caution in mind, even the buzz and excitement surrounding UNIQLO’s new store couldn’t get her to add them to her purchases.
O’Malley said he has been seeing “Heattech,” cashmere and ultra-light down products walk out the door in high numbers, precisely matching the highlighted items in the current season catalog. He said the response he normally sees from customers is “Wow, what value!” and, “I never thought I’d see those colors.”
Despite the lack of numbers to back up statements by Lawton and O’Malley, UNIQLO seems to have successfully made its debut on Fifth Avenue across the road from high-end retailers like Saks and a few blocks from Bergdorf Goodman. The store also appears to be holding its own against both moderate and low-priced chains such as H&M and Zara.
The expectations as Black Friday approaches are high, but O’Malley said he was aware that UNIQLO has ambitiously placed itself next to some of the most high-end retailers. But he said he expects an enormous amount of foot traffic.
The strategy to ensure that the staff will be able to keep up with the Black Friday frenzy will be similar to that employed during the store’s opening week, he said. Alterations are usually completed in two hours. “Just like when we had our $9.90 offer on denim and lots of customers wanted alterations, for Black Friday we will use the same combination of resourcefulness and hard work. The same recipe for success,” said O’Malley.