updated 10 Mar 2013, 13:11
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Wed, Mar 06, 2013
ST Urban
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30 stores here by 2015

When Uniqlo unveiled its global flagship store in Manhattan in October 2011, its founder Tadashi Yanai told Urban he saw the potential for 20 stores in Singapore.

Less than 11/2 years later, that figure has been bumped up. Mr Naoki Otoma, the group executive vice-president of Fast Retailing, Uniqlo's parent company, told Urban during a press trip to Tokyo last November that the cheap-chic chain hopes to open 30 stores here by 2015.

"Singaporeans are starting to wear Uniqlo in their daily wear," he noted.

Uniqlo now has eight outlets here that range in size from about 9,000 sq ft, the size of its first store here in Tampines 1 mall, to 19,000 sq ft, its latest store that opened in Bugis+ last June.

Four more are slated to open this year in Suntec City, City Square, Chinatown Point and the upcoming Jem in Jurong East. The company is on track to hit Mr Yanai's target of 20 stores by next year.

Bestsellers here include women's legging pants, of which Uniqlo sells 2,000 pairs a week, and the skinny fit Ultra Stretch Jeans, of which 800 pairs are snapped up every week.

Male shoppers here are fans of its slim-fit and skinny tapered jeans as well as the chino shorts, buying up to 1,000 and 2,000 pairs a week, respectively.

Uniqlo's first store here, which opened in April 2009, broke even within five months. It is unable to provide the latest figures but in an interview with The Straits Times in May 2011, Mr Satoshi Onoguchi, its managing director for Singapore, said the business here had registered double-digit growth each year over the previous two years.

Singapore was the first tropical market for Uniqlo when it made its South-east Asian debut, and there were doubts over whether it should peddle its coldwear here.

"At first we thought, 'Who's going to buy those items?'" Mr Otoma recalled. "But we can sell fall/winter products very well in Singapore. That was a surprise for us."

While Uniqlo declined to reveal actual figures, it said sales of its Heattech thermalwear jumped 61 per cent last year over the previous year.

It also has customers asking for Heattech items when they plan trips during the June school holidays to Australia or New Zealand, when it is winter in these countries.

Worldwide, the casualwear giant now has 1,173 stores in 13 markets, of which 828 are in Japan.

But it is gunning for the Asian market, especially China, where a Financial Times report in January said it plans to open 1,000 stores, up from about 180 currently. Another 1,000 stores are planned for other Asian markets, where it now has more than 155.

Last month, the retailer announced plans to set up shop in Indonesia, South-east Asia's most populous country, in May or June.

When Uniqlo opens the first store in Jakarta, it will have a presence in five regional markets, including Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Shoppers in the region, Mr Otoma noted, have a taste for prints and colours.

"While people in other countries seem to prefer black and white or more subdued colours, those in South-east Asia like colours, patterns, graphics and slogans."

There are plans, he added, to design some items exclusive to the regional markets.

"For example, shorts and cropped pants sell better than long pants in South-east Asia," he noted.

Even as Fast Retailing strives to be the world's largest retail apparel company by 2020 - it is now third after Spain's Inditex group, which owns Zara, and H&M in terms of market capitalisation - Uniqlo, its crown jewel, has been showcasing home-grown talent in the last two years who are largely unknown outside Japan.

After Jil Sander delivered her fifth and last +J collection for Uniqlo in fall 2011, it has worked with eclectic Japanese designer Jun Takahashi of the label Undercover to produce two collections.

The move to promote home-grown talent is a conscious one.

Mr Yukihiro Katsuta, Uniqlo's group senior vice-president (R&D), who is also the president of its design studio in New York, said bluntly: "The Japanese economy is bad, the politics is b***s***, Japan is losing energy.

"But from the fashion point of view, we still have very talented designers and Uniqlo is still doing very well. We are proud of the fact that we are Japanese and we want to keep our identity as a Japanese company."

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