Uniqlo opening 5th Ave. flagship store in big U.S. push

October 13, 2011: 1:30 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- While other retailers are shuttering stores and laying off workers, Japanese clothing company Uniqlo is boldly expanding its presence in the U.S. On Friday, the retailer will open a flagship store on New York's most famous shopping strip: 5th Avenue.

The store -- a whopping 89,000 square feet -- is the largest retail location on the avenue and the biggest Uniqlo store in the world. Stacked floor-to-ceiling with multi-color sweaters, jeans and cotton shirts, the new store will boast 100 dressing rooms and 50 cash registers so lines are kept short.

"We're really excited," said U.S. CEO Shin Odake "We have a great store on the best shopping street in New York."

Last year, Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing Co. paid $300 million for a 15-year lease on the 666 Fifth Avenue space, which is located near competitors Gap and Zara, setting a retail record in New York.

"It's a complete statement of confidence," said C. Bradley Mendelson, the Cushman & Wakefield broker who represented the landlords in the deal.

That confidence, according to Odake, lies in the fact that the company sells "core basics" rather than trendy knock-offs. Uniqlo's clothing is "made for all" and doesn't cater to one specific age group or demographic.

And, at a time when consumers are tightening their belts, it also helps that the clothing is affordable, with jeans that cost as little as $9.90 and cashmere sweaters that go for $49.90. Although Fast Retailing does not break out Uniqlo's specific sales figures, the company did say it's Soho store generated double-digit growth last year.

A Uniqlo in every major U.S. city

But the 5th Avenue store -- Uniqlo's second store in the U.S. -- is just the beginning of the company's ambitious expansion plans. The retailer, which specializes in affordable slim cut jeans, puffy coats and thermal tees, is banking on becoming a widespread hit on American soil.

Last year, Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai said the goal for Uniqlo is to reach $10 billion in sales by 2020 in the U.S., and he plans to open 200 to 300 stores a year worldwide, including locations in all major U.S. cities. (Uniqlo currently has just over 1,000 stores, primarily in Asia.)

"There's a lot of potential in this market," Odake added. "We want to open our store in every city in the U.S. eventually."

"They are going to do very well in other markets around the country because there are still shoppers and they are looking for something new and different," said Tom Julian, president of Tom Julian Group, a retail consultancy in New York.

Just don't call them the next Gap (GPS, Fortune 500). Odake says they are more interested in rivaling Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) than they are in other clothing stores.

With consumers cutting back on spending, Odake said the company must compete against all retailers for those sparse discretionary dollars, not just those in apparel. "We are competing against other innovative services," he said, "things like iPhones."

Uniqlo's innovation is most noticeable in its Heattech apparel, Odake said, which is a line of thin thermal t-shirts and leggings that claims to raise body temperature using Japanese technology.

"We expect this merchandise to sell out completely every four weeks," he said.

Although Odake says he's "not too worried" about the economic slowdown that has put a stranglehold on spending, he is wise to characterize Uniqlo's offerings alongside the hottest selling tech gadget on the planet.

"Customers will always look for innovative merchandise," Odake said, "whether it is an iPhone or clothing."

The changing face of 5th Avenue

It's no coincidence that Apple's landmark store is also on the same stretch of 5th Avenue. The prime property draws massive crowds throughout the year, eager to spend money -- even if the area lacks the cachet it once commanded.

Previously the exclusive home of many of the world's top luxury brands, like Cartier and Prada, now more mainstream brands like H&M, Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) have moved onto the avenue.

Across the street from the new Uniqlo, Forever 21 took over a space that was the former home to ultra high-end Japanese department store Takashimaya.

"If you look at what happened on 5th Avenue, it's become a tourist-driven destination and the highest-selling merchandise is fast fashion," Mendelson noted.

Because those tenants could afford to pay higher rents, that caused many of the luxury stores to move to Madison Avenue or elsewhere, where real-estate prices were lower, he explained.

But 5th Avenue hasn't suffered as a result. With the addition of Uniqlo "that two-block stretch block with Zara, Hollister and Swatch could be the highest grossing clothing block in the city," he said. To top of page

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