SHANGHAI — Declaring ambitions to create Asia’s most globally recognized brand, Japanese retailer Uniqlo on Thursday launched an online store for China in partnership with Mainland Internet giant Taobao.com.
“Just as everyone drinks coffee, and that has been turned into Starbucks, everyone wears clothes, and that can be made into a universal Uniqlo experience,” said Jack Ma, or Ma Yun in Chinese, chairman and chief executive of Taobao’s parent Alibaba Group.
“Look at McDonalds, Starbucks and such, they are all U.S. brands. We hope a Chinese or Japanese brand will become like them,” added Tadashi Yanai, founder of Uniqlo and president of its parent company Fast Retailing Co. Ltd.
Under the partnership, Uniqlo will have both a virtual shop on Taobao, plus a dedicated China Web site, uniqlo.cn, which will operate and sell through Taobao’s system.
Uniqlo opted to operate through Taobao in order to avail itself of the Web site’s user base of 100 million, who conducted 99.96 billion yuan, or $14.6 billion at current exchange, in transactions last year, according to the company. In recognition of limited credit card use in China, the new Uniqlo online store allows shoppers to purchase through their existing Taobao accounts. The collaboration additionally emerged out of Tadashi and Ma’s friendship since meeting at a conference two years ago, both emphasized.
“We have stores in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, but online we can reach all of China — even in Tibet and Xinjiang we will have customers,” said Tadashi.
Pan Ning, Uniqlo’s China director, said the retailer had 21 stores in Mainland China as of June 2008, and that will have increased to 45 by June this year, out of 848 internationally, and is launching next week in Singapore. The brand’s Mainland sales doubled year-on-year in 2008.
“Within Asia, China is our main focus. The Internet provides great opportunities for both marketing and sales. It is a way to be available to consumers,” said Pan, who denied the Web platform might compete with Uniqlo’s expanding retail network. “The Web develops fast, and the relationship between the Internet and physical stores is symbiotic.”
The Web site launch marks not only the beginning of Uniqlo’s online presence in China, but also Taobao’s first dedicated site for an independent brand. Ma hopes to establish about a hundred such online shops through the site. “Taobao is not just consumer-to-consumer, but increasingly business-to-consumer,” he said. “Combining the Web with consumers is powerful.”
“At first we were modeled upon eBay,” continued Taobao president Lu Zhaoxi, “but three or four years ago we started wanting to become bigger than that, and not just be consumer-to-consumer.”
While Uniqlo is the trial effort for that, Ma added the brand has its own niche positioning. “If Uniqlo can spark the dreams of young Chinese people, then this will be successful,” he said.