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With almost 4,300 store locations in 69 markets across the world, fast fashion retailer H&M is a quintessential example of a brand that constantly strives to provide high-quality products at affordable prices.

It’s come a long way since its humble origins.

The first store of what would eventually be known as H&M was opened by Swedish entrepreneur Erling Persson in 1947, after inspiration during a trip to New York. Initially, the store catered to womenswear alone; and was called Hennes, Swedish for ‘Hers’.’

The addition of menswear came after Hennes acquired Stockholm-based retailer Mauritz Widforss in 1968. Stores were rebranded as Hennes & Mauritz with international expansion to Denmark, Norway, U.K, and Switzerland starting the next year.

The acronym H&M was adopted as the firm’s official name after it went public in 1970.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Unprecedented expansion

H&M has grown by an average of 20% year-on-year in revenue since the 1980s. Part of the reason for this ferocious germination has been its ability to unearth the latest trends and sense what its target consumers aspire for.

Like other fast fashion companies, the product pipeline is quickly replenished as its marketing and design teams work in unison to keep clothes, shoes, & accessories up to date.

But it’s not enough just to make products that people want to buy. Brand building involves striking a chord with your audience; a message that H&M has carefully crafted over time.

Its focus on sustainability as a major ethos for the brand has earned acclaim. Consumers can drop off unwanted garments (of any brand) to H&M stores globally, which will be recycled and used in future products.

H&M explains that the global ambition is to work towards a “sustainable fashion future”, where unwanted clothes are used for fresh textile fibers and ensure no garments wind up in landfills.

The drive towards sustainability, which has been embraced by everyone at the company – from the CEO to middle management – is an example of how the company has always sought to redefine itself (and save itself from a PR disaster). Much like its products, the global retailer has tried to avoid stasis and remain top of mind for shoppers.

It first introduced online shopping in 1998 when the concept was still nascent, and in the 2000s set on a spree of international expansion, which saw further store openings in Europe, the US, and East Asia.

But central to the strategy of top line growth was the constant addition of new stores. This entailed costs – locations for new outlets need to be scouted, linking the store to a centralized supply chain, hiring staff, and ensuring all brand guidelines are adhered to. Not only does it take time, it can also prevent a fast fashion brand like H&M from trimming prices as much as it would like.

Challenges lurk

Despite H&M’s original launch of its online store in 1998, analysts are unequivocal in their opinion that the company has been slow to adapt to the internet age.

“We view value fashion retailers as the clothing retail segment most disrupted by online,” explains Anne Critchlow, an analyst at Societe Generale.

Digital disruption has eaten into H&M’s business. Pure play fashion ecommerce sites like Asos, Zalando, Zappos, and even Amazon private label brands don’t have to contend with managing expensive offline inventory and retail space. It helps them keep prices low in an attempt to undercut retailers like H&M.

Asos recorded US$2.6 billion in sales last year – a fair distance behind H&M – but the brand operates with a fraction of the same overheads as the Swedish retailer.

Euromonitor International estimates that online channels account for 14% of the global apparel and footwear market, with an overall size of US$231.7 billion. In developed markets, this statistic is even higher: 15.5% for the US, 18.7% for the UK, and 25.9% for China.

H&M is physically present in 69 countries but only offers ecommerce in 43.

The primary target market for fast fashion brands are digitally savvy millennials, which begs the question, why have they been so slow to respond?

CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson says the company has made mistakes in its strategy.

2017 was a disappointing year for the company with its share price sliding to the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis and the announcement that it would close 170 stores in 2018.

But the company plans on a net addition of 220 stores, causing even further consternation from investors who want it to double down on ecommerce and trim expensive offline forays.

“Fast pace is vital,” affirmed Karl last year, signalling H&M’s intention to accelerate its efforts towards ecommerce.

H&M stock isn’t performing well at all.

But this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“[H&M and Zara] have been lagging definitely and they do need things like just faster delivery times; shoppers want it now,” explains Maureen Hinton, global retail research director at GlobalData. “They face a tougher, more competitive market who have less to spend and far more competition with Zalando, Amazon, and others.”

What’s the future?

At the moment, H&M seems to be concentrating on markets with large growth potential. Its decision to open up new stores in India helped increase revenue in the country by almost 100% and resulted in 12 new outlets. The retailer is also selling online in India, hoping to capitalize on the ecommerce rush in the South Asian state.

But this seems to be a repetition of the old business model, which hasn’t exactly gone to plan. The writing’s on the wall. US retailers are in significant stress as they haven’t prepared for the digital age.

Millennials demand an omni-experience i.e. a consistent experience across both online and offline. Zara, has already picked up on this trend with its popup shop in London trying to bridge the gap, whereas H&M only realized it needed to integrate physical and online stores after a 2% drop in Q3 compared to last year’s figures.

The company is also relying on its presence on Alibaba’s Tmall to improve its online footprint in overseas markets.

It seems like H&M is finally aware of the fact that it needs to improve its overall purchasing experience. Nils Vinge, H&M’s head of investor relations, told LA Times that they’re deploying algorithms to support forecast demand and reduce the chance of markdowns.

But are these feeble attempts enough to survive in the hypercompetitive environment that fast fashion operates in today?

Part of the reason startups like Asos and Zappos have been able to snatch away market share is because millennials care more about the product, and less for brands. 51% have no preference between private label and national brands.

For H&M, it’s not enough anymore to sell relatively cheap products. The entire retail experience needs an overhaul and it better start doing that soon or the stock price might see a sustained nosedive.

Asian lovers don’t seem to shy away from Valentine’s day.

According to Mastercard, 75% of mainland Chinese are likely to buy a gift for their partner on this amorous occasion, followed by 74% of Thai, and 63% of Malays and Filipinos.

They’re shelling out hefty sums too.

Chinese residents indicated they would spend an average of US$310, closely trailed by Hong Kong at US$282 and Taiwan with US$281.

Filipinos don’t spend as much as some of their other Asian counterparts, but they’re ranked as some of the most romantic in the region.

An Orient McCann study revealed that Filipinos are the most emotional people in the world and second among those who most frequently say “I love you”, making Valentine’s Day an ideal event to let their feelings be known.

Google Trends data for the past week show interest in Valentine’s Day from the Philippines reaching a zenith as we approach the day itself.

Search interest is escalating fast.

What are Filipinos searching for online? And how can brands leverage this information?

Analyzing customer preferences in The Philippines

ecommerceIQ surveyed 500 Filipinos with access to the internet in an effort to understand how they prepare for Valentine’s Day.

87.2% of those surveyed said they intend to purchase a gift to mark the occasion, whereas only 12.8% indicated that they had no plans to do so.

But it’s not so straightforward.

63.9% of survey respondents said their eventual purchase would take place offline.

Within this subset, 42.8% said both the search and purchase would happen in-store and 21.1% outlined that their purchase journey would start online by searching for products but would be followed by a visit to their local mall.

36.1% of the people surveyed said they’re comfortable transacting online, mainly because of better deals & discounts, as well as the option of scheduling delivery at a particular time.

The most popular gifts sought by Filipinos for Valentine’s Day were surprisingly clothes at number one, followed by chocolates, and perfumes.

Flowers ranked a distant fourth – likely because the price of flowers in Manila tends to spike by 500% on or right before Valentine’s Day.

There’s no real substitute for red roses but consumers have a plethora of options when it comes to clothing and perfumes, leading to price stability.

What’s preventing Filipinos from purchasing online?

According to the survey results, more than 75% of respondents exhorted that they prefer to see the product before buying it.

A further 17% said they can’t trust the quality of products they see online or that they’ve been subjected to scams. Only 5% thought malls offer better deals & discounts.

Lazada was the overwhelming favorite among those who did purchase online. Almost 60% of respondents said they’d shop for Valentine’s Day gifts from the popular etailer. Shopee came in second, with 22.2%.

Despite the fact that the most sought-after gift was clothes, pure-play fashion ecommerce site Zalora secured only 4.4% of the vote.

Photo credit: Maxpixel

Capturing love online

Filipino preferences are indicative of a larger trend engulfing global ecommerce markets.

“It’s very hard to launch a brand these days that’s just online-only,” explains Sucharita Mulpuru, analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s an incredibly difficult and crowded ecommerce environment.”

Filipino brands have consistently tried to latch on to prevailing sentiments during Valentine’s Day to either sell more products or increase brand awareness.

Popular fast food joint Jollibee launched a successful campaign last year playing on themes of unrequited love and eventual reunification.

The ads, which were released in three parts, went viral on social media with over 50 million views on Facebook alone.

Condom manufacturer DKT Health gave away nearly 40,000 condoms in Manila during the Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015 by partnering with stalls selling balloons, chocolates, and roses.

Southeast Asian brands are cognizant of this dynamic, at least in Thailand. David Jou, the CEO and co-founder of Pomelo wrote in 2016 about how he viewed offline as a key component of his business moving forward.

“[…] is our goal to be the biggest online fast fashion brand or is our goal to be the biggest fast fashion brand?”, he said, posing an apparent challenge to his team.

Brands in mature ecommerce markets have already started to take a similar route too. Zara opened a pop-up shop in London last month to support its ecommerce channel. Staff at the store were trained to assist with online orders – shoppers can walk in, examine the inventory, receive recommendations from assistants, and eventually pay for the goods they like. But all the products they purchase are shipped to their address.

For companies looking to capitalize on the visible potential and consumer intent to purchase, they’ll have to overcome the prevalent trust barrier currently impeding ecommerce. A consistent online-offline retail experience could very well be a significant first step in doing so.

This is Part 2 of an article by Jeffrey Towson about the aspects of Alibaba’s “new retail” strategy.

In Part 1, I discussed uni-marketing and how the view of new retail for merchants and brands is very different than the view for consumers. A quick summary:

  • For consumers, the view is great. They are going to get what they want, where they want it and when they want it. New retail is a purification of demand.
  • For Alibaba, the view is spectacular. Their huge online marketplace is going to be merged with parts of the physical marketplace. The number of users and the amount of activity on their platform is going to increase dramatically.
  • But the view for merchants, brands, and retailers is more confusing. New retail upends many of their businesses, strategies, customer relationships and maybe even their brands.

In this part, I take an asset and resource view of all this, which I think is a much easier way to understand it.

Point 1: Digital competition is a lot about key resources, which are usually intangible assets.

You can look at competition with various frameworks.

  • Michael Porter famously described five economic forces, which tend to play out over the longer term in more stable industries.
  • Columbia Business School Professor Bruce Greenwald argued that one force, competition, is actually far more important than the other four.
  • Warren Buffett focuses mostly on competitive advantages and their durability.
  • Wharton’s George Day writes about dynamic competition and the constant move and counter-move of many businesses.

I focus mostly on digital competition (note: China is the global epicenter for this). This is a lot about how new digital tools and data are changing the competitive dynamics of traditional industries. For example, retailers traditionally compete on fixed costs and fixed assets (lots of stores, get bigger than your competitor). But ecommerce has a different dynamic. There is a lot more focus on the degree of participation of consumers, merchants and other users.

It can get confusing. And a useful approach is just to take a resource and asset view. Stop looking at the economic forces and competitive advantages, and just look at the assets used to compete. One company has 10 factories and the other only 5. One company has a famous brand that everyone knows and the other is unknown outside of one region. In digital competition, this usually means comparing intangible assets like technology, IP, captured customers, business linkages, and data.

If you take an asset view of competition in ecommerce and new retail, I think there are three big things that jump out as particularly important in a marketplace platform. Note: Alibaba is a marketplace and a pure digital competitor. JD is more of a hybrid of a marketplace (enable transactions but don’t take inventory or be the seller of record) and a direct retailer (buy and sell the goods yourself). For marketplace platforms (like Alibaba and VIP.com), the resources that matter are:

  • Captured online consumers. Their number, time spent, money spent and their participation on the site. And your degree of capture.
  • Captured online merchants and brands. Their number, their percent of business on the site, the integration of their operations into the site and their marketing activity on the site.
  • Content creators. Although this can be done as another type of retail (like Amazon’s digital media) or as an audience-building platform (like Youku)
  • Data from ecommerce, entertainment, social media and other sources.

These assets (both the users and the degree of activity) on the platform enable virtually everything else.

  • You can add new services and products.
  • You can add new types of revenue streams (transaction fees, marketing services, operational services, gifting, advertising, etc.).
  • And hopefully, you can use these assets to build competitive barriers. Network effects are the most desired. But there are also data network effects, MSP advantages, softer data advantages and linked businesses.

I view Alibaba as a particularly powerful version of this with three interconnected platforms: a marketplace platform, an audience-building content platform, and a payment platform.

These core assets cost a certain amount of money to acquire (plus time and difficulty). It’s a useful way to look at a company. But it’s also important to remember that these asset costs are different from the value they can then create. Similarly, the cost of a factory is different that the market value of the products it creates. And the cost of a college degree is different than how much you will make from it.

If you take an asset view, the sequence for marketplace platforms is usually:

  • Get an initial critical mass of users, merchants and data. There is usually a chicken-and-egg problem to get started (to get the consumers you need merchants, but to get merchants you need consumers).
  • Grow the number of users and their activity, mostly by data and digital tools. In marketplaces, personalization and curation are two of the big guns for this. Ancillary moves into new products and services or into new geographies (cross-border ecommerce) also really work.
  • Try to protect the platform with network effects, linked businesses, softer advantages and assets that are difficult to replicate.

Point 2: How these assets change over time is really important.

Alibaba is a virtual marketplace (so far). There are lots of supporting and complementary services (entertainment, payments, logistics / delivery, credit, etc.) but the core business remains connecting consumers with merchants and brands. And then making money from their transactions – and also from the marketing and other spending by merchants and brands on the platform. It’s a virtual shopping mall (Tmall) and a virtual trading bazaar (Taobao).

So what is the big difference between the intangible assets that create virtual marketplaces and the tangible assets that create real shopping malls? One of the most important differences is how these assets change of time.

If we were looking at a real shopping mall or bazaar, we would depreciate the PP&E over time. There would ongoing capex to maintain and maybe additional to grow. And in times of higher inflation, these assets can be a big problem as they really increase the cost structure. Plus there is also the real estate and land price aspects, which can be particularly important in downtown locations and in places like China.

But a marketplace made of intangible assets doesn’t necessarily decay over time. It certainly doesn’t straight-line depreciate. You may have to spend to keep it running (a type of maintenance capex, operating cost and customer retention cost) and for required upgrades – but the economic goodwill (not accounting goodwill, which is nonsense) should increase over time. And it doesn’t get hit by inflation (although labor costs can be a problem).

The same process can be true for other businesses that rely on intangible assets. Share of consumer mind (a Buffett term) is a big deal for Coca-Cola. Intellectual property and data / claims history can be important in technology and insurance. And so on.

But two differences I think about for intangible assets versus physical assets are:

  • Intangible assets can increase in real economic value over time – and often quite powerfully. This is good news.
  • Intangible assets are easier to replicate and often do not offer the types of competitive protection you get with physical assets. This is bad news (and why network effects and soft advantages can be critical).

Here’s how this can play out in marketplace platforms:

  • The more customers that come, the more valuable (and necessary) it is for merchants and brands to participate and compete with each other through marketing.
  • The more stores that arrive the more options consumers have and the richer their experience.
  • The more transactions and data from transactions, browsing and others sources (entertainment, etc) the more personalized and engaging the experience. This can enable more spending and engagement.
  • The more this ecosystem grows, the more difficult it is for a new competitor to replicate the entire ecosystem. The assets grow organically and become harder and harder to replicate.

Note: Parts of this can be described as a network effect. But it’s more about the degree of participation. Most MSPs do not have network effects and derive their value from their intangible assets.

Additionally, you get some competitive protection from an ability to cross-subsidize different parts of the platform (girls get free drinks at bars, men pay more). You can create complementary networks (Taobao helps Alipay and vice-versa). Yu can get linked businesses (Amazon’s cloud business subsidizes its logistics). And so on.

Question 1: How does “new retail” change a resource view of ecommerce?

This is the question I have been thinking about a lot. And a lot of this article is me thinking out loud.

But new retail is clearly a massive jump in the assets on the marketplace platform. And while all the talk is about physical retail, is Alibaba actually adding physical assets to their platform? I don’t think so. I think they are just leveraging in the intangibles of the tangible assets.

To me, new retail looks like it adds two big assets to the platform that Alibaba doesn’t have today. These are offline sales data and physical retailers, merchants and brands as users.

Take the “new retail” initiative in convenience stores. Alibaba is providing digital tools that transform mom-and-pop convenience stores in China. They plug in the tools and the stores gets three basic benefits.

  • Online customers can be driven into the stores from the local area (maybe). The merchant gets access to local online customers the same way an online merchant does. And they can market to them. Although in this case you are fighting for the customers in your neighborhood, not nationally. And you are fighting against other digitized local merchants, not every merchant in China.
  • They get digital tools that upgrade their payments, inventory, and supply chain. They get a bit of a store tech upgrade. Ideally, they get more efficient operations. Although adopting these tools also creates switching costs.
  • They get data that helps them choose their inventory for what people in that neighborhood actually want. This is hugely important and is part of Alibaba’s “uni-marketing” initiative.

And what does Alibaba get?

Well, the physical merchant just became as user in their marketplace platform. They add the transactions, the user and the data of the physical merchant without adding the physical assets. And they also probably got some new offline customers, but most everyone in China is already on Taobao.

So Alibaba is not going to own a lot of stores, such as Hema supermarkets or convenience stores. They are going to perfect the various business models and franchise out the system, the data and the technology tools. And for the hypermarkets, they will likely put that in a separate, associated and asset-heavy partner. And they will remain the data / tech partner for this, as they has done in logistics with Cainiao. The core marketplace, the engine of Alibaba, is going to remain tangible asset-lite and intangible asset-rich.

Now imagine they roll this out to 100,000 convenience stores in China? How many of those stores can be moved onto their ecosystem in this way? And then supermarkets? And then department stores? With a resource view, the size of the “new retail” opportunity is massive

Question 2: Who will own the customers in “new retail”?

This strikes me as a big question. Merchants are on Taobao and Tmall because they have to be. That’s where the customers are. They may also have their own branded website but they are also on Taobao and Tmall. And they can drive their customers to their stores and their own websites from here to a certain degree. But if they leave the Alibaba ecosystem customer retention is a problem. Famous companies like Zara and Apple have their own brands and customers. But most small merchants do not have this type of loyalty.

So this raises a question for new retail: if a physical merchant unplugs from the platform, do they take their customers with them? Or do those customers start getting directed to a different convenience store down the street? Who owns the customer in new retail?

WRITTEN BY: Jeffrey Towson

GUEST POST BY: JEFFREY TOWSON

H&M and Zara are two companies I pay a lot of attention to in China.

  • They have great business models. Fast fashion is really impressive in general.
  • They are popular with Chinese consumers.
  • They are both following market leader Uniqlo in terms of expansion into second and third-tier cities.
  • They seem to be growing steadily, despite slowing growth in apparel overall.

Overall, both look like big winners in China going forward. But I think there are two potential threats emerging. More on this in a second. First a quick diversion.

I keep a list of questions that I think are both important but difficult. These are things I try to figure out over time. One of these questions is “will fast fashion work the same in China as elsewhere?”. As exemplified by Zara and H&M, fast fashion has been a stunningly powerful business model. It continues to expand in the Europe and US – and is now growing in emerging markets. But it’s still not clear to me how well it will do in China, where consumers are fickle, competitors are ferocious and mobile/ecommerce appears to be changing almost everything in retail.

My answer to this question, thus far, is that the Western fast fashion giants are well positioned for China and for rising Chinese consumers.

The Zara and H&M business model has been studied extensively. It relies on syncing consumer behavior in stores with centralized design/manufacturing capabilities. Zara is the more extreme case with manufacturing in-house and re-design and shipping done on almost a weekly basis based on customer purchases. H&M, in contrast, has most of its manufacturing outsourced to Asia.

This “quick reaction” apparel platform makes great sense in China. If >50% of a season’s merchandise is re-mixed and re-designed during the season, that enables you to change with rapidly changing Chinese consumers. In this, “quick reaction” has a strength (i.e., reacting in real time to changing tastes) where many other Chinese consumer-facing companies have a perpetual problem.

This operating model also enables them to push discount versions of the latest designs from the fashion capitals (Paris, Milan, etc.) to China stores in a couple of weeks. Having design centralized in Europe also probably helps these stores in China. It is a differentiating strength relative to both local Chinese competitors and to “slower fashion” houses like Gucci and Prada.

Overall, fast fashion still looks like a great approach for rising Chinese consumers.

One more quick aside

(skip to the below points if you’re reading quick).

One of the benefits of fast fashion is you can have multiple style waves instead of 2-3 fashion seasons per year. One result of this is that consumers tend to come in more often as there is frequently new stuff to see. This, in theory, gets you greater revenue (people come more and buy more). You also get a greater “share of the consumer mind” (a Warren Buffett term). Greater frequency of consumer activity generally creates a stronger brand and a better relationship.

Financially, these frequent style waves also show up as less discounting of goods (a perpetual problem in fashion retail), higher revenue, and better working capital. That’s the theory anyway. And H&M and Zara do produce tons of cash, which they can then put into more scale and more stores. It’s a powerful approach when compared to traditional department stores or luxury fashion houses.

That said, it’s not clear to me that you get these same benefits in China. In particular, I don’t know if you see the same increased visits and branding benefits. Cycle times are already pretty fast in China. Most of the textile/apparel production is actually done in China / Asia. And I’m not sure you have the same historical expectations for a seasons’ new merchandise to contrast with. So I’m not sure about the revenue and gross margins of this model in China. Gross margins are typically 60% elsewhere.

Ok. Back to my main point, that there are two threats to the big China dreams of these fast fashion giants.

Threat 1: Ecommerce, mobile, and O2O are happening fast in China – and these companies are not real fast at this stuff.

Retailers are pretty much ground zero for changes in Chinese e-commerce, mobile, and online-to-offline activity. Digital transformation is hitting this sector like just about no other (except maybe auto and transportation).

First, the rapid adoption of everything mobile in China is transforming the interface with consumers. It is no longer just about walking in the mall and then going into a nice store like it might happen in Sweden. The Chinese customer experience is already a combination of the mall, a store, your activities in various online ecosystems and a rapidly developing logistics/delivery network. The two words you hear over and over in Chinese retail are digital and delivery. How this offline-online mix is going to play out and what “new retail” is going to end up looking like is unclear. But Chinese retail is where it is happening really quickly.

Against this rapidly changing Chinese retail landscape, here are some disturbing facts. Zara didn’t have an online store until around 2010 (about a decade after the Gap). And H&M didn’t start online sales in the US until around 2012. They also didn’t open a shop on Tmall until 2014. These companies are notoriously slow in digital stuff.

Both Zara and H&M are awesome in inventory and logistics. That is their strength. They have a powerful supply chain that connects retail activity around the world with centralized design and manufacturing, almost in real time. But they have been pretty slow when it comes to ecommerce and mobile. And these are precisely the things that are happening quickly in China – and that their Chinese competitors are particularly good at.

Threat 2: The local Chinese competition is moving upmarket.

You also need to consider the recent actions of the Chinese apparel giants such as Peacebird, Heilan, and Septwolves. They operate about 10x more stores than the foreign companies. Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo have 200-500 stores each. Helian and Septwolves have 2,000-4,000 stores each.

These big local competitors have historically been cheaper but they are now upgrading and moving upmarket. They are going to increasingly challenge Uniqlo, Zara, and H&M, especially as they continue to expand into second and third-tier cities.

When you combine #1 and #2, things get really interesting. What happens when you combine rising Chinese competitors with big digital, mobile and ecommerce disruptions? Does that change the fast fashion business model that has been so powerful in so many countries? This is the question I have been thinking about.

Anyways, that said, both H&M and Zara do appear to be in great shape in China right now. They both continue to open tons of China stores each year. They have a nicely adaptable model that is well-suited to the continually changing preferences of Chinese consumers. And Chinese consumers keep getting wealthier and wealthier. So that is all pretty great.

These companies may well turn out to be unbeatable in China, just like in most other places. But I am keeping an eye on these two particular threats to their China plans. We’ll see.


The first version of this article was published here

THE BACKGROUND

Japanese-based fast-fashion designer, manufacturer and retailer owned by Fast Retailing Co., Uniqlo has been providing “made for all” wardrobe staples to global citizens since September 1974.

Unique Clothing evolved into ‘Uniqlo’

Feeding on the thriving minimalist culture in Japan and need for closet essentials around the world, the fashion brand’s net sales came to $15.7 billion, up 6 percent from the previous year. Uniqlo has long associated itself with affordable clothing that speaks volumes to the Japanese values of simplicity, quality and longevity.

As GQ commented, “even when the Japanese retailer goes for hype, it doesn’t ever get weird,” following a collaboration the company did with French designer Christophe Lemaire that bore gray hoodies and white sneakers.

The rainbow array of t-shirts, big name collaborations and ever fresh S/S, W/F collections seem to be a hit as Uniqlo has 834 active stores around the world (data from June 2017). Most are in Japan, but other popular locations include the US, France, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Taiwan.

THE CHALLENGE

The company made headlines last year after reports revealed that the brand was struggling in the States – a forecast of roughly $36.31 million impairment loss on its US operations in the six months through August.

Bloomberg also reported that Fast Retailing Co. Chairman Tadashi Yanai cut Uniqlo revenue target by 40 percent to 3 trillion yen by fiscal 2020. Analysts attribute the more realistic predictions to the weakened yen, certain cultural barriers and most importantly, the rise of online players.  

eIQ Brand Series

Drop of Fast Retailing Co (parent company of Uniqlo) earnings. Source: Bloomberg

Other fast fashion brands such as H&M and Zara have also given Uniqlo a run for its money with aggressive market expansion, high product turnover and strong online presence. It means Uniqlo needs to keep up and the company knows it.

THE INNOVATION

“We need to be fast,” said Chairman Yanai. “We need to deliver products customers want quickly.”

Despite both being fast-fashion companies and having a similar production strategy, Uniqlo and Zara are still vastly different.

“Zara sells fashion rather than catering to customers’ needs,” he said. “We will sell products that are rooted in people’s day-to-day lives, and we do so based on what we hear from customers.”

Not only has Uniqlo vowed to increase clothing production, it has also focused rigorous interest on emerging countries.

Rumours arose a few weeks ago regarding Uniqlo holding recruitment days in Ho Chi Minh City – a market already occupied by fast fashion labels such as Zara and H&M, the latter announcing a store opening later this year.

Uniqlo was also the first in Japan to implement a ‘SPA’ model – short for “specialty-store retailer of private label apparel” meaning it encompasses every aspect of the business, from design, production to the final sale.

This gives the company the ability to test new in-store technology such as attaching radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to all products so the store system can identify which items need restocking and free up time for sales clerks to tend to customers.

Bold marketing initiatives and branding included its partnership with Muslim fashion designer Hana Tajima, to naming world professional wheelchair tennis star Gordon Reid as a global brand ambassador.

Uniqlo winter collection ‘17 by Hana Tajima.

The company also allocates marketing budget to offline pop ups in premium malls. An example is a mini-fashion in Bangkok on July 12 promoting the brand’s new styles of denim.

Uniqlo fashion show at EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok to promote its new denim styles.

Uniqlo fashion show at EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok to promote its new denim styles.

Uniqlo is declaring to audiences around the world that it’s not afraid to stand up for a cause.

THE STRATEGY

As reported by Nikkei Asian Review, Masanobu Kusaka, previous manager of Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue store in New York in 2015, realized that Uniqlo’s true rivals were somewhere else. He also witnessed the sudden closure of some of those shops. The culprit? Online retailers.

Kusaka began by improving the company’s existing digital assets starting with the app first. His team added functions that displayed the user’s purchase history and recommended matched clothing sets.

The company’s online sites have also expanded their product sizes – a huge limitation for brick and mortar stores – and offered XXXL to accommodate Americans.

Uniqlo also focuses on upholding a strong omnichannel strategy across its retail footprint. The company plans to open over 200 stores in China and Southeast Asia alone as the company reported same-store sales in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia posted double-digit growth in the first half.

Chairman Yanai hopes that customers will find convenience from the company’s new service where shoppers can visit any Uniqlo store, get fitted for a particular item of clothing, order it online and have it delivered to their homes straight from a warehouse.

“The ability to provide anybody, anywhere, anytime with the ultimate, high-quality day-to-day clothing will set us apart,” he said. “We want to deliver products that customers want quickly. That’s why it’s Fast Retailing.”

THE FUTURE

Chairman Yanai, Japan’s richest man, said in April 2016 he wants to expand Fast Retailing’s ecommerce worldwide, with an initial target for online sales to make up 30 percent of total revenue, up from 5 percent currently.

Given the rising popularity of online retail and the brand’s quick strides to innovate, it doesn’t seem too farfetched.  

Fast Retailing Co. Chairman Tadashi Yanai

Vietnam’s economic development has been the cause of a widening income gap between those working in developed, urban centers and others in rural locations. The country’s income distribution is predicted to be among the most unequal in Asia Pacific by 2030.

The highly polarized nature of Vietnam’s current market means a few things:

  1. Companies can either target one particular social class and specialize or
  2. Mid-range brands have the opportunity to consolidate both a premium and more affordable product line under one umbrella

An example of a company that does this successfully is Viet Tien Garment, an apparel and footwear maker that has different brands to serve different age and income levels. For example, it launched Vee Sendy for younger shoppers and TT-up for its mature customers.

The company is valued at $50.2 million and claimed 2.3% market share in 2016, which is considered positive in Vietnam’s fragmented market.

Serving individual social classes

Source: Euromonitor

Social class E, the lowest income class is expected to remain the most prevalent in the country until 2030, which is good news for FMCG companies as they represent a large market for basic necessities.

According to Nielsen, FMCG items are experiencing a growth surge in Vietnam, especially beyond Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

In 2016, nearly 6% of Vietnamese urban households shopped for FMCG items online at least once and found themselves spending 3-4X more than they would on an average shopping trip offline.

Social class A, the highest income class is expected to be the second fastest growing segment until 2030.

Luxury automaker Mercedes Benz already counts Vietnam as one of its fastest growing markets in Asia and Chanel recently opened its first flagship store in Ho Chi Minh earlier this year – demonstrating a positive step in the direction of Vietnam’s growth.

As Vietnam and US trade grows 20% annually, analysts believe that increase in income will stimulate consumption of luxury labels, especially if they are portrayed as a status symbol.

“Why would I spend $300 on something that doesn’t relate to me, and has no voice?” says Ha Nguyen Thu An, Head of Social at Ogilvy. “Everyone gets Louis Vuitton because of their brand story.”

Apart from multi-brand marketplaces such as Lotte.vn and Robins.vn (previously Zalora), consumers do not have direct access to luxury items and instead, are only exposed to fast fashion pieces or mid-tier brands such as Nike and MANGO.

The future of Vietnam’s consumer landscape

Whether these companies choose an offline, online approach, or both, the country’s classes are both showing signs of economic growth and an appetite for goods they can show off.