January 18, 2018

UNIQLO no Maru! Japan Retail Tsunami Reaches Bay Area

After years of waiting, Bay Area shoppers can finally shop at their own local Uniqlo outlet. Not that just hopping a plane to Tokyo was such a bad way to shop for cheap, colorful jeans and lightweight long underwear. For the past couple of years, there was the option of visiting the flagship store in New York on 5th Avenue. But a local SF Uniqlo beats all that, and enables the casual pop-in to see what is hanging on the sale rack, and what’s coming out of Tokyo these days.

The SF Chronicle provided a splashy welcoming cover article in its weekend style section, but inadvertently framed the store logo using an old Imperialist Japan look. The picture says it all. Probably not pulled from approved examples in the Uniqlo brand guidelines and color schemes. It should have upset both Uniqlo PR and the Japanese right-wing nationalists, since it is not quite right from either perspective. It is distinctive from the Japanese national army flag (16 rays) and even the Japan Self Defense Force banner (eight rays) – this one has eleven rays, so maybe the designer just used something like a clock face to lay it out.

The new-imperial vibe in the Chronicle did not keep people away from the grand opening of the Powell Street shop, which had lines running around the block for the first couple of weeks, including lots of Chinese customers who might be the first to recognize this prestigious Japanese brand manufactured in China. In fact, it was like an Asian tour bus had just let off, and middle-aged ladies thronged in the shop, at times climbing up displays to pull popular sizes in running in short supply directly of the mannequins, to the horror of Japanese staff who politely asked them to retreat and wait for restocking.

Emergency Restocking via Uhaul

True to their Japanese service training, Uniqlo staff hustled about silently in order to replenish dwindling stock and pacify crowds of eager shoppers.  Not so Japanese-looking was the $19.95-per day U-haul truck parked in front of the store to resupply racks of clothes, but the whole operation was carried out very inconspicuously by  staff dressed in black, equipped with walkie-talkies and headsets, carefully coordinating their movements like secret service agents

Also diligently at work were the Uniqlo Crowd Management Team, who kept the line moving up the street and around the corner toward the entry while leaving open a passageway for pedestrians.  Another polite Uniqlo employee was posted to escort people around the corner while protecting the loose open-ended segment of the line from potential cutters or line-jumpers coming in off Powell Street.



Uniqlo Crowd Management - Corner Unit

Uniqlo staff were even polite to cheeky salespeople from Old Navy and other rival retailers who roamed up and down the Uniqlo line, passing out their own leaflets as they tried to lure impatient  shoppers to perform a little “uwaki” with the competition.  All indications were that they were wasting their time and nobody was about to get out of line to go check out the Gap.

The scene inside the new store was exciting and felt authentically Japan, all the way from oodles of beaming staff greeting you and offering help, down to the Toto-branded toilets and the teeny tiny changing rooms.  Lines at the oddly-situated checkouts and a confusing little system around getting measurements taken and purchasing pants prior to dropping them off in the basement for alterations had some customers wringing their hands.

But for a major market launch, things looked pretty smooth and the customers were mostly smiling.

So woo-hoo!  Welcome Uniqlo, and bring on the high-tech underwear, puffy socks and comfy micro-knit casual wear!