By  on November 8, 2007

Second Time Around

LONDON — After abruptly shuttering the bulk of its U.K. stores four years ago, Uniqlo is back.

The Japanese casual fashion chain, owned by Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., on Wednesday opened the doors of two Oxford Street units: a 25,000-square-foot flagship at number 311 and a 17,000-square-foot store farther east at number 170.

"London is the Olympics of the retailing world. All of the major players are here," said Tadashi Yanai, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Fast Retailing, which his family founded. "Those who succeed in London are winners worldwide."

The openings mark Uniqlo's first major footprints in the European market. Next up is a small "antenna shop" that will open in La Defense, Paris, early next month. That unit will be Uniqlo's first on the Continent.

The London flagship is a first for Uniqlo. When the Japanese company debuted in Britain in September 2001 it was with a string of 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot stores scattered around the British capital, in the suburbs and smaller cities. The focus then was on rapid growth, with plans to open 50 units by 2003 and move into profit by the third year. But that never happened, and in 2003 Uniqlo revealed plans to shutter 16 of its British stores, leaving just five open — all of them in London.

At the time of the closures, retail analysts argued that while gross margins were good and the financial model was sound, the Uniqlo product was too bland, and could not compete in a city famous for its relatively cheap, cutting-edge designs and vibrant, street fashion culture.

"At the time, Uniqlo had been so fantastically successful in Japan, they thought they could expand worldwide — regardless of local tastes," said Edward Whitefield, chairman of MHE Retail, the London-based consultancy.

"But, in the end, what they were offering was a very basic product and they learnt the same lessons as Gap," he added. The chain is thought to have posted losses of about $25 million as a result of the U.K. closures.

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