Japanese retail whips SF into a frenzy -- but are they that much different than the chain stores we already have?
New People is a bit different than the new megachains in town, however. Even the casual visitor can tell Horibuchi's inventory couldn't have come from any other country — unlike a lot of Muji's stock, comprised of simply-universal products, most of New People's vinyl dolls, high design flatware, and frilly babydoll bonnets could really have only come from Japan.
But Horibuchi understands why brands like Muji choose San Francisco for their debut on this side of the country. "We're more open to foreign culture," he says. "San Francisco is very flexible, livable."
Plus, Asian Americans make up nearly 36 percent of the city's population — and that ratio has grown in recent years. Companies know that many residents are already familiar with their brand, Horibuchi says. "I'm sure they've done enough marketing research."
A company that has certainly done its marketing research is Uniqlo, which opened a popup shop (117 Post, SF) this summer, then a full-size West Coast flagship store (111 Powell, SF) in Union Square in October. In its opening weeks, the latter attracted 100-plus-person lines of shoppers with cheaply-priced rainbows of colored denim and ultralight down jackets.
In a calm moment on a busy holiday shopping day, I got a chance to talk with Uniqlo's John "Jack" Zech, a "superstar store manager" according to a publicist that sat with us while we talked.
The three of us had a view of Uniqlo's specially-designed-for-SF "magic mirror" (put on a down jacket, press a button, and the hue of your garment in the reflection shifts through the line's different colors), its staircase of melting rainbow tones, and slowly rotating armies of mannequins clad in ski-ready fashions, ensconced in glass cases.
Zech worked in Uniqlo's Japanese locations for months before the SF stores opened, and he says the company's goal is to bring the Japanese concept of supreme customer service, irrashai mase, to the rest of the world.
When you walk into Uniqlo, a person in a happi day kimono greets you warmly. But other than that, I couldn't see much of a difference between the cheery sales staff there versus that of any of the other chain stores in the neighborhood.
You won't find happi on sale at Uniqlo. Instead, its affordably-priced cashmere, "Heat Tech" clothing — that I promise you, actually tingles and heats your skin up — and $9.90 packable raincoats (the only clothing item made specifically for the SF store) dominate the sales floor.
In 2010, the company's official language switched to English. All managerial staff worldwide is required to speak it. "We found that people basically need the same things in Japan, France, London, here," chirps Kech. "[CEO] Tadashi Yanai thinks we can improve the world by being a global company."
Which snapped me out of the reverie I'd been lulled into by banks of $29.90 beige boot-cuts. Are Uniqlo and Muji really all that different than the globalized brands from the United States? Walmart, after all, has store greeters.
"If the product is good, it will sell," regardless of geography, Horibuchi told me. These big brands have real cute stuff (admittedly, I would like to draw Santa's attention to Muji's $38 cardboard MP3 speakers.) But you're not being worldly by shopping at them, though you are being globalized.