With retail sales expected to fall in 2009 for the first time in 30 years, clothing retailers are biting their nails. But it’s not the case for Uniqlo USA, the US branch of a Japanese clothing manufacturer and retailer that has bright expectations for the coming year. “For Uniqlo, it isn’t about price but about value,” said Liz Meltzer, senior VP global merchandising and women’s product development. “The majority of our industry is driven by trend or price, but Uniqlo is driven by the value we give our customers. Price alone doesn’t mean anything unless the quality is exceptional, so that’s what we promise.”

Uniqlo opened its first store in 1984 in Hiroshima, Japan. Today, it has more than 750 stores worldwide. Most are in Japan and Asia, but 13 are in the UK, one is in Paris, and one is in the Soho district of New York City. Despite the worldwide recession, the company plans to expand in China and Singapore and to open a Paris flagship location.

Meltzer attributes the company’s success to its focus on developing innovative, technologically advanced products that meet the needs of consumers around the world. She said Uniqlo doesn’t emphasize a huge product assortment with country-specific designs, explaining that the company will sell the best T-shirt in a variety of colors or the best pair of jeans for modest prices.

“When we launch a product or start a promotional campaign, we do so on a global scale. We find something that works for every market we’re in. This allows us to maintain a unified message and helps to build our brand,” said Meltzer, adding that a lack of such consistency is part of the reason other clothing manufacturers and retailers are struggling now.

Growing internationally often makes internal communication and brand consistency challenging to maintain, but Meltzer said Uniqlo already has a system in place to facilitate the company’s growth: global teams. Each division has team members in every market. International members relay information to the company headquarters in Japan, and the teams talk regularly via video conferencing.

In the merchandising team, for example, Meltzer coordinates information about the New York store and works with her counterparts in Japan to maximize the assortment at the store for effectiveness. The marketing division works closely with merchandising, Meltzer said, to develop new campaigns that work in every location.

Quality and clarity

Heat Tech, Uniqlo’s most recent and most popular product line, benefited from this system. For the launch this fall, Uniqlo put live vending machines and large     rectangular boxes stocked with Heat Tech products and staffed by live sales representatives outside store locations around the world. The New York machine was in Times Square.

“From product development to market, innovation and technology are the cornerstones of our business,” explained Meltzer, referring to the awards Uniqlo won for its previous campaigns Jump and Uniqlock. 

Heat Tech was developed in a partnership with one of the world’s leading fabric manufacturers using innovative fibers that convert body moisture into heat. The extremely thin fabric warms and insulates the body without adding bulk, making it popular for layering in cold weather.

According to Meltzer, technology always comes from the suppliers who work with Uniqlo to identify and meet consumers’ needs. The company is also selective in choosing supplier and manufacturing partners, and most have worked with the company for a number of years. In addition, the company’s quality and safety control team visits every manufacturing plant once a week to ensure the quality of every product.

Meltzer attributed the company’s reputation for innovation to an atmosphere that encourages creative ideas and rewards passion. She said she spends a lot of time in Japan so she can physically experience each new product. “We all need to see how a product looks and what it feels like because we all take the details seriously. When your company is founded on producing only the highest quality product, that’s what you have to do,” said Meltzer.

After the Heat Tech launch, Meltzer said the New York store saw a huge jump in Heat Tech product sales. She said the best part of working for Uniqlo is not the company’s success but that despite its size, it’s easy for one person to impact decisions and be heard.

“The amount of brainstorming that goes on in a global company like this is remarkable. Every week I attend new product meetings where we talk about what opportunities we see, what is working, and what is not working in the business,” she said, adding that it’s that flexibility and spirit of teamwork that will continue to fuel the company’s growth through the recession and beyond.