Sheneque Alexander, a store manager at Uniqlo in the Trumbull Mall, is obsessed with finding out who her customer is. A Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who has had stints at The Gap and Victoria's Secret, she makes a mental note of the shoppers that come into the casual clothing store. Sometimes she surveys them, asking where they are from and who they are buying for. There are the usual suspects, 20 and 30-somethings who have shopped at the New York stores. Others are middle-aged parents, who have been tasked to buy a specific piece of clothing for their children. The most surprising demographic?
"We get seniors," she said, standing amid racks of clothing that included skinny jeans and printed T-shirts with cartoon characters, albeit classic ones.
During last November's opening weekend, the line stretched across the 10,000- square-foot store. Devotees of the brand, which has yet to expand further into the Northeast, made the two-and-a-half hour drive from Boston. Others came from neighboring places like Stamford and Westport.
The latter will no longer have to go to Trumbull.
On Friday, the Japanese retailer unveiled yet another 10,000-square-foot store, this time in Stamford's Town Center mall. After focusing its efforts on dressing the distinctly urban and urbane masses of New York and San Francisco, Uniqlo is bringing its clearly-thought-out sensibilities about style and customer service to a different cross-section of American shoppers, that of mall goers.
The Stamford outpost is the second store to open in the state in less than six months, part of a broader U.S. expansion plan that is poised to make Uniqlo one of the most dominant players in the American fashion market. Uniqlo's parent company, Fast Retailing Co., has announced that it will install at least 20 new stores a year, including ones in uncharted suburban markets. Meanwhile, the company is expanding its urban market with future stores planned for Boston and Philadelphia.
Although relatively few Americans may know the brand, Uniqlo is a behemoth in Japan and abroad. Fast Retailing, which owns the chain, is the fourth-largest retail clothing company in the world. Last year, it had sales of $2.8 billion and net income of $203 million. The company owns six other brands besides Uniqlo: Theory, Comptoir des Cotonniers, GU, Helmut Lang, J Brand, and Princesse tam.tam.
Uniqlo's founder Tadashi Yanai has been known to say that Uniqlo is not a fashion company but a technology company. It eschews the idea of following trends or pulling looks from the runway, as other stores do. Its aim is to provide casual looks for good value, ones that wear well and blend in.
"Every one of the apparel companies is different," said Larry Meyer, Uniqlo's U.S. CEO. "H&M and Zara and Forever 21 are all about the latest fashion. We're about classic looks and making those looks better with new colors or fabrications. It's that constant application of science and development that makes us different from other retailers out there."
Despite deep ties to its Japanese origins, Uniqlo has long held the U.S. market in its sights. In 2005, the chain tentatively toed the waters, opening three stores in New Jersey malls, before withdrawing five years later from what was generally considered a strategic failure. Focusing instead on the urban markets, Uniqlo opened New York locations in SoHo, on Fifth Avenue, and 34th Street, more recently expanding their American strategy to include stores in malls and suburbs loosely clustered on the east and west coasts.
"Now they've gotten the formula down better," said Craig Johnson, president of New Canaan-based Customer Growth Partners. "They've established a presence. They're in rapid expansion mode now that they've gotten the fit right with the American market."
He added: "Foreign retailers have had a checkered history in the U.S., but this is the first store [company] that has come in -- exited -- and is giving it another go."
This time around, Uniqlo is expecting very different results. Meyer attributed this change to the constant improvements Uniqlo makes in its products, tweaking the technology to make its down jackets lighter and warmer and its undergarments softer and cooler. One of its most notable innovations, HeatTech, a carefully tooled fabric that creates air pockets to keep body heat in, took nearly 10 years to develop to its current iteration, Meyer said.
"The greatness of Uniqlo is that the evolution of the merchandise is continual," Meyer said. "Clearly, we believe that the locations [in New York City] have helped, but the product has evolved."
Within the Stamford mall, the expectations are considerable. Since Saks Fifth Avenue closed, the Stamford Town Center has retained just one anchor store, Macy's. Its directory is frequently changing, drawing stores that are more youth-oriented.
"One of the important things with a successful center is to look for new exciting retailers to bring into the mix and that's what we're doing with Uniqlo," said Meredith Keeler, the mall's general manager.
The mall has long been thought of as a design-challenged space. As he has in the past, Johnson noted that the structure is uninviting, likening it to "a World War II bunker" that is "designed to keep people out."
"Retail is all about newness and Uniqlo is more for younger people, teens and 20-somethings," Johnson said. "It will be helpful that way. So it's a step but it's only part of the solution."
If Uniqlo is about bringing "newness" to the mall, Stamford's demographic is increasingly leaning toward youth and affluence. Nearly 65 percent of people living downtown have someone ages 18-34 living in their household; 42 percent are female. The median income of downtown dwellers is $108,000 annually, far above the average of $82,558 and $69,243 for the state, according to a study commissioned by the Downtown Special Services District.
"We have the most incredible demographic," said Sandy Goldstein, president of the DSSD. "We have the highest income and the youngest group of people that live anywhere else in Connecticut besides Storrs and New Haven. Those two things alone make it very inviting for an international company to come here."
Despite its consciously trendy advertising campaign -- its spokespeople include R&B musician Pharrell Williams and actors Dakota Fanning and Orlando Bloom -- the company says its clothes are meant to appeal to all ages. This is the suggested universality of Uniqlo's motto, "life wear." Like the early days of the Gap, which was the inspiration for Uniqlo, the brand is about providing basic clothes that appeal to a wide cross-section of age and income groups.
Westport resident Raspati Horrigan, 52, might not have stepped into Uniqlo if she hadn't spotted a $60 gray Dry Comfort blazer hanging near the store's entrance. Horrigan noted that it seemed like the perfect thing for her son in college. Its price and durability fits well with a young man's lifestyle, she said, adding "no ironing."
"It's amazing," Horrigan said. "The style, the quality is not bad for this price. At first, I didn't believe it."
Staff writer Elizabeth Kim contributed reporting