Success doesn't come without commitment and hard work. Many of the world's most accomplished organizations know this first-hand and have had to invest in sound strategies to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment.
Uniqlo is no different. The fashion brand has come a long way since 1984 when Tadashi Yanai, the company's chairman, manager, and CEO, took over his father's successful chain of suit shops and transformed the company into Asia's biggest clothing retailer, topping 1 trillion, close to $10 billion, in fiscal year 2013.
While a lot of the success of the now international brand is attributed to the product, Uniqlo has invested heavily in making sure it keeps its customers at its core, including through rigorous employee training. This is not a company that throws new hires in the deep end, but takes time to properly train them in the multiple functions of their job-from folding merchandise to answering customers' questions and advising them on their purchases. And then there's courtesy to customers that's ingrained in employees' way of doing business; you won't see a Uniqlo checkout clerk absentmindedly sliding a customer's credit card across the counter. Instead, Uniqlo trains its employees to hand both credit cards and receipts with both hands, while maintaining eye contact with customers.
As the company embarks on an ambitious global expansion plan, 1to1 Media caught up with Larry Meyer, Uniqlo USA's CEO, to discuss the ingredients that are helping the retailer become a household name.
1to1 Media: What makes Uniqlo a customer-centric organization? Can you give some examples of how you wow your consumers?
Larry Meyer: One of the principles of the company is that all of our work needs to be focused on making people's lives easier and more enjoyable. That manifests itself in many ways. From the product side it means making great products, for example down jackets that are warm but light. And then we need to deliver a great experience to our customers. We feel that customer service is very important and expectations are high. We therefore need to engage and support the customer.
1to1: Having a powerful-commerce experience is essential for brick-and-mortar stores to remain competitive. Experts believe that one of the important shifts is in associates who need to transform into trusted advisors. However, many retailers fail to train their associates, leading to a poor customer experience. Why is training so important?
LM: Training is imperative. When customers walk into a store, they want to see our products displayed nicely, allowing them to see the available inventory. This is part of training. Our associates also need to be knowledgeable about the products. We train people to make sure they know the features of a product and why they are important. Some products have technical features, and associates need to be able to explain these features to customers. For example, a customer might want to know if a particular jacket will keep him warm in certain temperatures and whether he would need any additional layers. It's also imperative for associates to be able to identify sales trends to make sure that products don't run out of stock.
1to1: Can you share some of the main ingredients of your staff training program and why these are instrumental in making sure you have the best equipped and most knowledgeable associates?
LM: We have rigorous recruiting procedures, with various [proprietary] testing stages along the way before people progress to training in the store. We also have ongoing reviews, looking at how individual stores are working, and making sure that they are abiding to the company standards.
1to1: Did you make changes to the employee training program to tailor it for U.S. employees? Or do you use the same program globally?
LM: Overall we use the same training as the one developed in Japan, but we individualize the process to the particular stores. We want to localize the global concept.
1to1: One action that distinguishes Uniqlo from your competition is that staff is trained to return charge cards with both hands to customers while making eye contact. Was there resistance to this procedure outside of Japan?
LM: Not at all. That's part of who we are and part of our culture.
1to1: Uniqlo fosters a culture of transparency with staff. How do you ensure transparency and what results have you seen?
LM: We want to inform our organization that we have the same [sales] goal, and we should share information. I believe we can do better, we always can, but when you compare us to other retailers, I believe we're doing well and transparency is embedded in the culture of the company.
1to1: One of the main differences between Uniqlo and other retailers is that you don't try to make do with the least number of associates. Why do you take this approach and why does it work?
LM: We believe that customers who come into our stores want to engage with associates. We try our best [by providing the optimal number of associates] to make sure they have a great experience.
1to1: Apart from having a sharp focus on staff training, what is Uniqlo doing to ensure its physical stores remain competitive?
LM: We always ensure that our stores are of the highest quality and well maintained. We also want to make sure that the ecommerce experience is consistent with the in-store experience, providing quality knowledge in a convenient way. Our goal is to have a seamless interaction between online and in-store. We want to do it better.