Q: How many sweaters does it take to sell one sweater?
A: Apparently, more and more.
Confused? Read on.
I recently visited New York City and, like a good curious shopper, spent some time in stores. It's all for you, people.
So there's this new store called Uniqlo. It opened its US flagship in Soho last fall. Uniqlo has been hailed as "the Gap of Japan" for selling basic, mainstream, simple - all right, boring - clothing. But that's okay; boring clothing at reasonable prices has sold well in Japan.
However, Uniqlo has been challenged to translate its retail offering into other cultures. A first attempt at the UK market failed when big, splashy store openings were met with confusion. Now, Uniqlo is focused on bridging the culture gap, by understanding the mind of the fickle US consumer, while also maintaining a subtly Japanese aesthetic. They've set some lofty goals with that one.
When I visited the store, I had a slightly different observation. For me it was less of an American-Japanese gap they needed to bridge, and more of an Old Japan-New Japan gap that needed balancing. I saw spare Japanese discipline coupled with hip Japanese pop culture. The interplay between modern and traditional was fascinating, if not entirely cohesive. Most interestingly, the traditional was actually more in tune with the trends of American retail.
The store is 80% minimalist. The clothes are unbranded and consist mainly of plain, solid colors. Everything is neatly organized and placed on a giant three-dimensional grid. The whole environment is sparse and geometric. It feels vaguely Asian. It feels kinda rigid. It doesn't feel like clothing, and it doesn't exactly inspire me to grab five tops and jump into a dressing room. And yet, there's something intriguing about it.
But the other 20% of the store is sensational. Flashy mannequins are decked out in Japanese street fashion, spinning in a disco-hipster aquarium. Flat-panel televisions, mounted flush with mirrored walls, create an eerie, futuristic vibe. It suggests fast-paced youth culture in Tokyo, like the club scene in Babel or the karaoke in Lost in Translation. It feels uber hip. It also feels kinda lonely. It reminds me of the isolation of technology.
Now ultimately, I believe that Americans are hungry for a dose of non-American culture. And saying "I got this at Uniqlo" will give New Yorkers their weekly dose of cool. So the flagship should do very well, and it has so far. But while J-Pop is a fad here in the States, the design elements of traditional Japan are a trend. Know the difference? Fads come and go. Trends are indicative of longer-term changes afoot.
And one of the biggest retail trends I see today is simply, repetition. Why? We are busy, and our attention spans are short. Show us something once, and we might sense it with peripheral vision. Show us something twice, and we recognize it from before. Something triggers our brain to remember it. Show it to us again, and we might actually process it. Show it to us so many times, that it becomes part of something bigger? Now we really get it.
Here's an example. You know how people complain about the grocery store having 40 kinds of ketchup? It probably doesn't have 40 kinds. It might have 15 kinds, but 40 facings. This is because stores give top sellers multiple spots on the shelf. Let's face it, a ketchup bottle is only so big. It can't grab your attention on its own. But an army of ketchup bottles? You are guaranteed to see at least one of them.
Another example. I've seen ads plastered onto el cars in Chicago, and on bus stops in New York. The single ad may be a well-designed, fully complete, standalone poster. But there are three of them in a row. I've learned to ignore most commuter advertising, but triple-vision ads? It's odd and it grabs your attention.
You may be saying to yourself, "But repetition is so obvious. It's the oldest trick in the book." That may be true, but it wasn't always necessary to repeat. Think about it: in the past, stores might have only needed one can of soup to sell, well, one can of soup. Now, apparently, they need two. Repetition has gone from a bonus to a requirement.
And what Uniqlo has done is take repetition to the next level. The store uses the product to create an enormous wall of color, much bigger and more impactful than any single sweater. When you stand across the room, you sense the pattern and the scale. When you get closer, you recognize the individual items. When you unfold one of the 6 sweaters that are actually within your reach, you feel like you're taking a piece of the Great Wall of China. It's special, because it's part of a much bigger entity.
If retail is a game of attention, this billboard effect is the newest way to win. And so for me, it all came together. Uniqlo may not be in vogue forever, because nobody knows how long Japanese culture will be cool to Americans. But the principles behind Uniqlo's retail exhibition are right on trend. They are actually more in sync with the most basic form of retail out there - the supermarket. Uniqlo might not feel like other clothing stores, but it sure does feel efficient. Packed and organized like the best cereal aisle.
The answer, by the way? Well, it looks like there are about 12 stacks of 6 sweaters above each eye-level section. So, by my calculations, 72.