Fast forward with the fashionably fun Uniqlo

By Roderick L. Abad, BusinessMirror

Posted at Mar 12 2012 07:21 AM | Updated as of Mar 12 2012 03:21 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Today, we often hear the country’s new tourism slogan “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” and if it sounds too familiar, it’s because it was used to draw tourists to Switzerland in 1951. However, the slogan did what we needed it to do—create a buzz for the country—and it even became a top trending topic in social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Beyond being the nation’s branding campaign, the tagline has spawned different versions describing the joyful experience a visitor could have in whatever part of the country—such as “Traffic? It’s more fun in the Philippines”—and to this we add one more tweak, “It’s more fun doing business in the Philippines.”

But is this really so, we dared ask Katsumi Kubota, chief operating officer (COO) of Fast Retailing Philippines Inc. (Frpi), and he readily answered, “Yes, I agree.”

And it was with this straightforward and unwavering statement that the top official of Japanese retail brand Uniqlo indicated in its recent press launch that the country’s good business climate was a big reason it chose to further expand its retail presence in this part of Asia.

“We already started to work with new colleagues from the Philippines. I am very much surprised how good they are. The Philippines has a very, very strong potential for us,” Kubota said.

Fast Retailing Co. (FR) is the world’s fourth largest apparel retail firm engaged in designing, manufacturing and selling clothes under five brands: Comptoir des Cotonniers, g.u., Princesse Tam Tam, Theory, and Uniqlo. The latter is Japan’s leading specialty retailer, with more than 1,000 stores worldwide.

For Uniqlo, Asia, particularly the southeastern part, offers a big growth potential and is a key regional focus of the brand’s global expansion strategy. Following the successful introduction of its stores in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, it could not think of any market, other than in the Philippines, as the next area of expansion.

“The reason why we decided to come to the Philippines is because we target to become number one globally in 2020. The Philippines is a very important market for us to achieve that,” Kubota said.

In partnership with the country’s retail giant, SM Retail Inc., Frpi was formed with the aim of creating a new business model in the local scene. Under a SPA (Specialty store retailer of Private label Apparel) business model, it designs, manufactures, markets and sells high-quality, casual apparel in pursuit of its “Made for All” philosophy.

Included in the deal’s paid-in capital of ¥720 million or approximately P400 million is the establishment of Uniqlo’s pioneering store that will feature approximately 1,550 square meters of floor space within one of the region’s largest shopping centers, SM Mall of Asia, to offer Filipino shoppers all of the brand’s latest fashions for men, women, kids and babies.

Such a joint venture, however, does not limit the Fast Retailing Co. from opening a store in other properties here. In fact, Kubota revealed, they remain open to the prospect of a partnership with other retail firms to further reinforce Uniqlo’s presence locally.

Unique fashion brand

Given its bold corporate statement committed to “changing clothes, changing conventional wisdom and change the world,” Tokyo-based FR is dedicated to creating great clothing with new and unique value to enrich the lives of people everywhere. This holds true with its Uniqlo brand, which has a mission to enable people the world over to experience the joy, happiness and satisfaction of wearing truly great casual clothing.

Unlike other global retail brands, such as Zara and H&M, that cater more to the European taste in their design, one would say that at a mere glance, Uniqlo is distinctly Asian. While both brands tend to pursue fast-fashion trends, Uniqlo also tries to veer away from that direction.

Made for male and female customers from 16 to 60 years of age, Uniqlo’s well-finished clothes function as components of an overall outfit. Its wide array of basic apparels are sophisticatedly designed and of superior functionality and quality.

“As a fashion brand, we focus on fashion and function. But other than function, we also focus on quality of the materials we use,” FR Group Executive Vice President Naoki Otoma said through an interpreter.

Since Uniqlo is not known among local consumers yet, except for those Japan-based overseas Filipino workers and fashionable jetsetters, the company’s initial aim is, of course, raise brand awareness.

“They have to be informed, through our communications, who we are; what Uniqlo is all about; why we are here; [and] what kind of value we are trying to offer for the Filipino customers. Then the product comes, the services, and the satisfaction,” Kubota emphasized.

Considering the historical and, of course, cultural ties between Japan and the Philippines being Asian neighbors, Otoma said it could greatly influence the local market to easily accept their brand.

“In terms of the sizes of the clothing and the color choices that are more suited for the Asian market, there’s probably a great familiarity for the FIlipinos with our brand in this country,” he said. “We feel that by adding ourselves to this market, it is going to be more fun for the people to shop because they now have another option or brand [like ours].”

Future perspective

With barely three months before Uniqlo opens its first store in the Philippines, FR’s top executives expressed high hopes for the success of their initial outing in the country.

“Our goal right now is to make sure that there are a lot of customers that will visit our first store and really experience the real Uniqlo—our products and services,” Otoma said.

Bullish on their local investment, Kubota likewise disclosed their intention to open 15 to 20 stores in several years and also introduce FR’s other brands as part of their long-term plan.

“In terms of global perspective, we hope that the Philippines will match the global standard and even reach or exceed the performance achieved by our stores in other countries,” he added.

Beyond business, the Japanese retail firm, being a very new brand coming in to this market, also dedicates itself to contribute a new sense of value to the people in the fashion industry as well.

“So now that we are here in the Philippines, these people in the fashion industry who heard about us can now see [and] experience the products that we have been talking about. And we feel that having experienced our products themselves, we will be a huge influence or impact on them,” Otoma said.

Believing in the local talent as seen in the many Filipino fashion designers now making waves in the global fashion arena, he cited their company’s openness to also tap homegrown ideas. This, he said, would be applicable for their genre of clothing called UT, a T-shirt line designed by various people across the globe.

“And so if a designer or a pattern maker in the Philippines shares in the vision of Uniqlo; shares in the type of clothing that Uniqlo wants to provide; or will have an idea of something that he or she may want to contribute or add to the item that is sold in our store, then maybe that person could aggressively contact us and present to us his or her design,” said Otoma. “Who knows? Maybe we will use his or her contribution in our products.”