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Tokyo Rising

Japanese retailers are currently blazing a trail across the United States, causing some to ask: What do they have that we don’t?

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Sebastien Thibault


As anyone who has visited even the teeniest Tokyo noodle bar can attest, the Japanese take the quest for perfection—or kaizen—pretty seriously. To see this tradition a little closer to home, and on a much larger scale, you need only visit Uniqlo, on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Inside this 90,000-square-foot emporium—the retailer’s largest outlet anywhere—even humble T-shirts must obtain the approval of takumi, or textile “masters,” before they are stacked in precise, color-coded towers. The time shoppers wait at cash registers is strictly monitored. Cashiers hand back credit cards Japanese-style, using both hands and making full eye contact. Each day, notebook-toting “sales advisers” recite customer service mantras before the doors open.

Uniqlo, founded in Yamaguchi, is unquestionably this decade’s standout retailer. By offering basics in more tailored fits than its rivals, and in more permutations (polo shirts come in 80 colors), the chain outsold Gap last year and is closing in on H&M and Zara. Going forward, its parent company, Fast Retailing, plans to open 20 to 30 stores a year in America, part of a bid to make Uniqlo the world’s No. 1 clothing retailer by 2020.

Also expanding in the U.S. is Muji, which embraces Japan’s obsession with pared-back style to the point that it makes the Amish look like the Village People. This lifestyle “anti-brand,” with its emphasis on “self-restraint,” has flourished by upholding the quality of its products while ditching superfluous features (its clothing doesn’t even have labels inside). Muji aims to swell its nine American stores to around 75 by 2016.

As for why Japan should suddenly find itself flexing its muscles in U.S. shopping malls, that may come down to a matter of right place, right time. “Japanese sensibilities chime with American consumers at the moment,” says Jan Randolph, an economist at the counsultancy group IHS Global Insight. “Heritage, attention to detail, a less-is-more approach and an accent on service are things people have come to appreciate more since the financial collapse.”

Marian Berelowitz, interim director of trendspotting at the marketing communications brand JWT, agrees. Japanese culture, Berelowitz says, is “definitely in step with the rise in mindful living, the Zen-like appeal of simple pleasures and the desire to filter out branding and distractions.”

On a less spiritual level, two Japanese convenience store giants have announced U.S. expansion plans. Famima!!, an upmarket food store owned by Tokyo’s Family Mart, already has operations in California, and Lawson has opened several outlets in Hawaii, selling onigiri and oden next to the piña colada mix.
Meanwhile, American cities will soon succumb to the charms of Aki-Home, which aims to lure Ikea-oriented urbanites by offering “tasteful minimalism with a nod to nature.” Part of Sapporo-based Nitori Holdings, Aki-Home has just opened two stores on the West Coast as a springboard to nationwide expansion over the next few years.

Christian Davies, executive creative director for the Americas at the branding and retail consultancy Fitch, believes Japan is set to present a significant challenge to design-led yet low-cost companies like Ikea. “They make you question why good design is traditionally so expensive,” he says. “And they make you realize, with clever manufacturing techniques and simple, mass detailing, that it doesn’t have to be.”

As for the Japanese commitment to service, Davies says that such an approach could prove pivotal in the current existential struggle between actual and virtual retailers. “This is something we desperately need,” he says. “The human factor is in increasingly short supply in U.S. stores. I think we’ll see a return to that—from faceless self-checkout to a spirit of hospitality, warmth and gratitude. If you are making a decision to shop in a physical store, you deserve this.”

As Japanese retailers continue to blaze a trail across the U.S., there are signs that American companies are starting to take notice. Some fashion outlets, for example, are experimenting with “quiet zones,” while a few convenience store chains are considering the radical notion of intentionally employing friendly clerks.

The irony here is that many successful Japanese retailers owe a massive debt to their American counterparts—albeit sometimes ones from a bygone era. Aki-Home, for instance, was modeled on the homeware stores that founder Akio Nitori encountered on a 1970s trip to California. Lawson was actually once an American company—famous for its store-brand orange juice and chip dip—before it was transplanted to Tokyo. Then there’s The Real McCoy’s, which sells lumberjack shirts and James Dean jackets—a very American-looking brand that, it turns out, is based in Kobe.

Boyd Farrow has been writing business stories for more than 25 years. He is still about six fingers away from becoming a keyboard master.

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