Last month Japanese retailer, Uniqlo, known for its budget-conscious clothes, opened two new stores in Manhattan, an 89,000 square foot store on Fifth Avenue and a 64,000 square foot store on 34TH Street just around the corner from the Empire State Building. Both are airy and contemporary with neutral finishes that allow ithe brand’s brightly colored clothes to pop. Taking a page out of the Prada Epicenter playbook, the stores are “experience-focused” selling more a lifestyle, which in turn generates desire for its goods, much like Nike did for its brand with its “Be Like Mike” campaign. Uniqlo cultivates interest in its brand by enlisting interesting people to promote its goods, like actress Susan Sarandon who was on hand for store’s opening; through partnerships with high-fashion designers like Jil Sander, who produce limited collections for the brand that give it an upscale cache, and through the design of the stores themselves, which incorporate innovative merchandising concepts to lure shoppers in and keep them interested.
Designed by Wonderwall with Gensler, the stores start “selling” at the street incorporating facades that have a high degree of transparency and blur the boundary between public and private space. With spinning mannequins visible through its storefronts and more than 300 LED screens dancing across its façades, the experience is a bit like street theatre and is at times dizzying. Despite the gimmickrey, there are some notable features at each store. At the Fifth Avenue location, the big design move there is the 60-ft escalators that soar from the first to third level and are flanked by grand stairs lit with neon risers. All of this is intended to create a modern shopping experience that is effortless, fun and service-focused. Whether such details translate into sales remains to be seen.
While its far too early to tell if Uniqlo is here to stay or if it will quickly disappear again as it did in the early 2000s when it opened its first US stores in suburban New Jersey malls, one thing is for sure. With the opening of these stores, the company is making a big play for the US market in one of the worst economies ever. For this it is gutsy, if nothing else.