Black vs. White: Abercrombie & Fitch vs. UNIQLO Ginza

Walking down that strip in Ginza now perhaps better knowns as "fast fashion lane" is a bit of a retail trip.

One cannot but look at the Gucci boutique in Matsuzakaya and be reminded of the recent announcement by the brand to vacate the space because the neighborhood is "too dominated by fast fashion" and wonder what has become of Ginza - once the most posh piece of retail real estate on the planet.

Some say Ginza has such mind-boggling capacity as a retail center because it is home to some of the world's most up-market boutiques as well as small independent shops. But that particular strip in Ginza seems to be claimed by fast fashion now. Matsuzakaya's new tenant, after Gucci, is supposed to be Forever 21.

But no matter what people say, only shops that can generate enough revenue can stay in the high-rent area that is Ginza and at the moment, they are H&M, ZARA, UNIQLO and Abercrombie & Fitch, who have opened their doors for the first time in Asia on 15 December.

I was not game enough to queue on opening day, but managed to get in on a Monday afternoon of the following week. Despite it being close to 16:00 on a Monday, the queue was still long. Interestingly enough, the faces in the queue looked Japanese, but the language being spoken was Chinese. The store is indeed the flasgship store of Asia.

A recent Senken column quoted a Chinese shopper saying, "Everything is authentic in Japan and cheaper than in China." And the columnist talked about how it seems to be the in thing to do for wealthy Chinese to shop in Tokyo. Ironic since many luxury brands have diverted their marketing funds and resources to mainland China, often re-allocating them from Japan. Maybe they should bring that money back so that they can cater to these wealthy Chinese?

Visiting Abercrombie & Fitch was a unique retail experience in Japan because of the fragrance that fills not just the store but the street. They say Japanese are very sensitive to smell and prefer subtle applications of it than to have it sprayed all over. If anyone has ever gotten stuck on a crowded Tokyo subway jammed up next to someone who smelled like he poured a whole bottle of Brute over his head before he got on the train, you don't need to wonder why.

But true to its retail formula, Abercrobie & Fitch has trigger happy sprayers (or whatever their official titles are) walking around as well as a van that drove around the streets spraying.

And true to its retail formula, the store is black based with dimmed lights (the brightest places are the lit up murals which look more fabulous in the reflections than when one looks directly at them) and blaring music. The models are friendly and helpful.

Many ciritics in the industry say Abercrombie & Fitch are five years too late in coming. It is hard to deny that, but what good is "shoulda, woulda coulda" when managing retail? They are here now and they have to compete now.

What I found a bit of a challenge as a retailer is their pricing. The women's jeans featured on the main fixtures all carried price tags exceeding 20,000 yen. A "kawaii" Napoleon jacket (in cotton) was 36,000 yen. The signature vintage look long sleeve T's were 8,900 and up. The bulky, on trend, low gauge knits had pretty Liberty print lining but it made one wonder if that was enough to justify their prices, especially with the dry handle. Menswear seemed to be priced a touch lower with key jeans being around 18,900 yen and mostly under 20,000 yen. But the rugged leather jackets at 89,000 yen made me realize that one cannot come to an Abercrombie & Fitch boutique in a fast fashion mind set. Instantly, I was thinking: Beautiful People sells biker jackets at 69,000 yen - which would I buy?

After going through the store from the 11th floor down, one realizes there are only two floors where they take your money - 7th and 3rd. And the queue on the 3rd floor had wound itself down the stair case to the 2nd floor. Unfortunately for me, that was a major deterrent to actually buy something. If I want something, I just want to pay for it and leave, not wait another half hour in the queue.

Feeling a bit disappointed with myself for not shopping, I _had_ to walk into UNIQLO. The new +J range was not yet in (they were launched on 23 December), but I had to take a look.

UNIQLO is all white, brightly lit, and what only hit me after I entered the store was that it is full of signage: price tags, special offers, product information - UNIQLO is the ultimate "Japanese" cluttered retail space that hits you with "logic" vs. Abercrombie & Fitch, that hit your senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell.

When foreigners think of Japanese aesthetics, it is the minimalist Zen thing that comes to the fore for them. But when it comes to retail, Japanese love what they are accustomed to - clutter. Just like all the advertisements they are hit with on the trains and buses, Japanese love clutter and color in retail. Just compare the home pages of Yahoo.com and Yahoo.co.jp and it is obvious - the reason why Yahoo.co.jp is the most popular portal site is not because it is run by Softbank, but it is the familar clutter and visual "noise" that make Japanese visitors stay on the site.

Looking at the massive wall of the jeans bar in Abercrombie & Fitch reminded me of the first time I went into a Gap Japan store with its massive wall covered with piles and piles of chinos. "Why are they showing me so much of one product?" I wondered, and though it was none of my business, I said to myself, "Is this effiecient use of so much space?"

UNIQLO covers its walls with piles and piles of the same product cateogry, too, but the difference there is that they tell you why they do it: Buy two or more and get a discount on the second one. This changes everything.

Though the +J wool military style jacket I had my eye on was marked down and my size was available, I did not shop at UNIQLO either. I had too much food for thought to enjoy after visiting the Black store (Abercrombie & Fitch) and then the white one (UNIQLO).

Abercrombie & Fitch, according to the press, will not mark anything down for the foreseeable future. How they will fare when the rest of Giza goes on New Year's mark downs will be interesting to see.

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