Basics—everyday items like T-shirts, socks and jeans—are not normally considered the most exciting part of the business, but Uniqlo (优衣库), a Japanese firm, has transformed them into a goldmine. Having conquered Japan, it is now taking on the world.
The company is often cited as an example of a new, globally competitive Japan. Its founder and boss, Tadashi Yanai (柳井正), emerged from humble origins to become one of Japan's richest men. According to Interbrand, a consultancy (咨询公司), Uniqlo now ranks among Japan's ten most valuable brands.
Uniqlo's parent company (母公司), Fast Retailing (迅销), is Japan's biggest clothing company. Whereas many Japanese businesses are ailing (状况不佳) because of the stagnant global economy, Fast Retailing is flourishing. Last year, sales grew by 21.6%, despite the recession, or rather, because of it—its clothes combine a touch of style with tempting low prices.
Fast Retailing remains smaller than its global peers, but it is catching up fast and has had a record of impressively rapid growth. In recent years, it has opened huge flagship stores (旗舰店) in Paris, Moscow and Shanghai, which have been met with crowds of customers.
Fast Retailing has a distinctive business model. Zara and H&M bring the latest fashions to the masses quickly, ordering new lines many times a year. Fast Retailing, by contrast, sells only around 1,000 items, far fewer than its rivals, and keeps them on the shelves longer. "We don't want to chase after "fast-fashion" trends," explains Yanai. This lets Uniqlo strike lower-priced, higher-volume deals with suppliers and makes managing inventory (商品库存) a much simpler and cheaper affair.
Uniqlo makes up for the narrowness of its offerings by selling the same item in many colors: Socks come in 50 hues (色调) at its flagship store in Tokyo. Such basics, the firm believes, have the added benefit of appealing to a wider audience.
With an ambitious goal of maintaining $50 billion in sales and $10 billion in profit by 2020, Uniqlo is undoubtedly one of the 21st century's top fashion businesses to observe and a notable example of style, simplicity and customer-focused policies beating out the "cut-price" tactics of 20th-century fashion.