Uniqlo Union Square: A Localization Experiment

As a 5’3″, 125lb male, clothes shopping in the US has always been hellish. I managed to get by through some combination of American Apparel, elusive XS finds, tailored thrift store stuff from the 70’s, and other little hacks, but most US manufacturers don’t serve smaller bodies.

When I spent my year in Japan, it was like discovering what shopping actually was–getting to make choices based on style, brand, and color rather than just whatever happened to fit. There were lots of great stores in Tokyo, but none captured my heart like Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is full of hip, simple, brightly colored staples, at prices that belie their sturdy construction. From a distance the garments are not all that different looking than Gap, H&M, or American Apparel, but many have just a little extra that sets them apart – double stitching, heavier-weight fabric, a slimmer, more athletic cut, or an unlikely pattern. A lambswool cardigan I found was tapered in the sides to avoid that awkward puff of fabric most cardigans have. A merino track jacket had a smooth-gliding zipper you would expect on an expensive REI jacket. Especially given the H&M-level pricing, the attention to detail is impressive.

This post isn’t about the clothes, though– what struck me most about my visit to Uniqlo was the odd localization the company did for the US market, bringing over Japanese retail practices to an American staff. Here are a few examples I noticed:

  • Pointing at anything is absolutely forbidden. All staff gesture directionally with a full hand.
  • Credit cards are taken and given back with two hands, in a similar manner to Japanese business cards.
  • Free hemming is included for all purchased pants– the dressing room attendant will measure and pin right as you try a pair on, and they are ready for pickup within 3-4 hours. I’m not sure whether this is standard across all Japanese stores, but many offered this while I was there.

All of these, however, paled in comparison to the sale announcements.

At the Japanese Uniqlo, the staff frequently shout out current specials and deals. In a culture where loudspeaker announcements are ubiquitous, and every woman has a soft, sing-song voice, these announcements are just another texture and seem perfectly in place.

In Union Square, however, it just sounded like a fish market. “Fleece! We have fleece for $19.99! Go get yourself some fleece!” Once the announcer was a big jock with a midwest football accent; the other time it was a big African-American woman who boomed out the discounts like she was leading a Southern Baptist congregation. The announcements cut through the hum of the crowd and soft, hip music, instantly turning this slice of Tokyo life into something alien.

With all the effort and meticulous planning that went into transplanting Uniqlo from Tokyo to San Francisco, it’s funny that they didn’t think about how this piece would translate.