Uniqlo, the Japanese clothes giant, launched an online shopping site in the U.S. this week. This may not seem like important news to many, but to a certain American consumer—think very well-dressed, without much money, and living between the coasts—it is like a food drop from a Marshall Plan plane in 1940s Berlin. $9.90 slim jeans and $79.90 cashmere sweaters in wearable solids are no longer the special privilege of New Yorkers and Los Angelenos, who, let’s face it, probably didn’t really need more slim-cut cheap clothes anyway. The only people who might be disappointed are the ones who used to pick up cash making runs to the coastal stores and sending the loot to Uniqlo fanatics in the middle states.
It’s also important news for Uniqlo, whose founder and chief executive officer, Tadashi Yanai, has long been boasting that he wants to become the world’s largest manufacturer of clothing, and has been chasing European giants H&M (HMB:SS) and Zara for years. And it may also be big news for holders of Fast Retailing (9983:JP) shares, who have seen earnings disappoint as sales in China have not taken off as hoped and Japanese stores continue to underperform. In Japan, Uniqlo is a bit like the Gap (GPS). Its stores blanket the country, its wares are simple and cheap, and the customer seems bored.
Internationally, Uniqlo has repositioned itself as a stylish alternative for the mass market, and the website works accordingly. Like Uniqlo’s stores, the site is elegantly and cleverly designed, with minimalist care. It also mimics the feeling of plenty that makes the stores so mesmerizing. Inside the Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York, neatly folded jeans and T-shirts in mostly solid colors line the walls. The store is so deep that one almost falls into it, and then has to fight one’s way out by grabbing T-shirts that are too cheap to pass up.
Along these lines, the website is set up more like a Pinterest site or a Tumblr blog. Where an old-fashioned online apparel site might replicate a catalog (frustratingly, to anyone who has ever had to position their mouse over the tiny page numbers at the bottom, or chosen, for the millionth time, “view all”), Uniqlo’s site is set up as a column down which one can keep scrolling. There is no outline of the site’s departments on the left side, as on so many other sites; all the options are in one set of tiles up top. In the way a Windows phone feels like the next generation of an interface, with live tiles rather than static icons, the Uniqlo site feels like the next generation of the e-commerce experience. It may or may not supercharge the company’s fortunes, but it will certainly help with the cashmere shortage in the middle of America.