Uniqlo isn’t in the business of chasing trends. Its staples—versatile black pants, reliable oxfords, crisp cotton socks—are available month after month, year after year. A more apt analogue would be the Gap. In its 1990s heyday, the Gap revolutionized American retailing by making basics cool. But the company eventually became a victim of its own success. “When [the Gap] tried to go from having a certain cachet to being in every single mall in every single town in America, the brand lost its edge,” Steve Rowen, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research, told me. Gap clothing became the uniform of suburban moms and dads. Despite the company’s efforts to make its khakis less baggy and its shirts slimmer, no one wants to fall into the Gap anymore—especially when you can get cheaper basics with cleaner lines at Uniqlo…
That could be an opportunity to make a good first impression. But as Uniqlo learned when it arrived on American shores, first impressions can be hard to manage. The three original U.S. stores were in New Jersey malls, where the company soon encountered several hurdles, including fit. (American customers, on average, are taller and fleshier than Japanese shoppers.) It closed the stores within a year.
Uniqlo has continued to struggle in suburban markets. Rowen, of Retail Systems Research, said he thinks the company should hew closely to cities, where it has found its greatest success, because that’s where its core customers are. This would also help it avoid the fate of the Gap, which traded its sense of self for growth.
- The majority of Americans live in suburbs. If a company wants to hit it big, the American people are in the suburbs. Furthermore, there is a lot of money to tap in the suburbs as well as future generations of loyal brand adherents in the form of suburban children.
- Being associated with the suburbs – shopping malls, parents, the mass market – will change the brand and eventually render it obsolete.
It is also worth considering numerous other brands that have appealed to suburbanites and survived. Is the clothing market that different than the smartphone and tech industry? In other words, does Apple suffer because so many suburbanites have an iPhone or are they the rare example of a company that has kept its cool factor even while becoming ubiquitous?
If this were an American company, I might guess that they would eventually go for the suburbs with all its money and potential buyers.