The opening of Japan-based clothing retailer Uniqlo’s first ecommerce site earlier this week signaled yet another step in the company’s plans for aggressive North American expansion. In late September the brand, known for its high-quality, reasonably-priced clothes, opened two new outlets: one in Paramus, NJ and the second in San Francisco—its first West Coast location. The goal, says Kensuke Suwa, CMO of Uniqlo USA, is to open 20-30 new stores per year by 2020. And with a new presence in the West Coast market, Uniqlo felt the next step was digital expansion.
The company’s e-commerce presence is crucial to building recognition for a brand that so far has limited presence in the U.S. Though Suwa cited that the company’s brand awareness is “more than 97%” worldwide, in early October financial services firm UBS AG downgraded the stock of its parent company, Fast Retailing, citing limited awareness in U.S. and European markets. But Suwa expects that recognition of the company will increase now that Uniqlo’s e-commerce capabilities have gone live in its core markets of Japan and China, as well as in Korea, Thailand, the U.K., and of course the U.S.
“The interesting thing is we have customers from Hawaii,” Suwa says, pleased to see orders coming from a state where the brand hadn’t established a physical presence.
Uniqlo figured the time was right to build out e-commerce functionality on its site not only to support its expansion, but also because it had been fielding numerous queries from customers about purchasing online. “We were ready [and felt] that we could do it in the right way,” Suwa says of the brand’s decision to activate e-commerce when it did.
By “the right way,” Suwa meant that he wanted to make sure the brand’s online presence aligned with its in-store personality. “Our strength is the customer benefits,” he explains. “We put a lot of energy into [customer satisfaction] at the store level.” Bringing the feel of the store to the site was the primary challenge—being able to display and showcase the clothes in an online forum that, by its nature, can’t replicate the hands-on nature of shopping in-store.
There’s still much Uniqlo would like to learn about its online shoppers. “We have to learn what the customer needs when they go shopping online, because customer behavior shopping online in America [versus] in other countries might be a little different,” Suwa explains. “That’s what we like to see: the customer’s reaction to the shopping experience.”
The brand also wants to expand its digital presence to further engage customers. In September Uniqlo launched a Pinterest campaign and currently, Suwa says, is in the process of mapping out its mobile shopping strategy—an area of interest for many retailers, some of whom have noted that customers tend to prefer shopping on branded apps rather than mobile browsers.