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Uniqlo sets its sights on Metro Vancouver expansion

Additional B.C. locations to follow for global fashion retailer that opened in Burnaby October 6
Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai visited Vancouver earlier this month to open his newest of about 1,900 stores, in Burnaby | Glen Korstrom

Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo opened its first B.C. location October 6 at Metropolis at Metrotown and is seeking space in downtown Vancouver for a second Metro Vancouver location, the company’s CEO, Tadashi Yanai, told Business in Vancouver during an exclusive interview October 5.

Yanai said he wanted to open his company’s first Canadian store in downtown Vancouver, but Uniqlo operatives could not find appropriate space for the right price, so they opened the 20,630-square-foot store in Burnaby.

Finding reasonably priced space in a good location was easier in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), he said, so Uniqlo opened two outlets in the GTA last fall: a 33,400-square-foot store at CF Toronto Eaton Centre in September 2016 and a 30,000-square-foot store at Metro Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre a month later.

And while all Canadian openings so far have been in malls, Yanai said future stores could be on streets.

“Definitely, I prefer a streetfront [store] in downtown,” he said. “That’s my preference.”

Uniqlo was rumoured more than a year ago to be interested in taking a large space on Robson Street’s north side between Thurlow and Burrard streets, but nothing materialized.

Yanai said his company is open to locating stores in spaces where lease rates are low and the store’s presence changes the character of a neighbourhood – a site such as the former Empire Granville 7 cinema complex at 855 Granville Street.

“That could be a good idea,” Yanai said of locating on Granville Street. “Because, if we’re paying the right rent, the fair rent for the downtown, it’s very difficult to make both ends meet.”

He said Uniqlo last month opened in a historic building in Lyon, France, partly because of municipal government encouragement and an attractive lease rate.

Retail Insider Media Inc. owner and analyst Craig Patterson said it would be a “game-changer” were Uniqlo to locate on Granville Street because the chain’s presence would draw in other established retailers that would want to be nearby.

Still, he does not think it would be a good move for Uniqlo unless it signs a lease that guarantees low rent for a lengthy period. Otherwise, lease rates could rise and the only beneficiary would be landlord Terrma GP I Inc.

On the flip side, Yanai said he is also open to paying a substantial lease rate to be in the most prominent space available.

“It happens and it makes sense, particularly in places such as Paris, New York and London,” he said of opening a store that he knows will lose money but acts as a billboard for the brand.

“In these three cities, having a primary location and presence is a must to globalize your brand.”

While the average Uniqlo store is between 10,000 and 22,000 square feet, the company is willing to go big.

Its Manhattan flagship store at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street is 89,000 square feet, while its two-year-old Chicago flagship store is 60,000 square feet.

Regardless of when Uniqlo opens in downtown Vancouver, Yanai said that his brand may also locate in suburbs in the future.

That could mean a store at the long-delayed McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport Phase 2.

The 240,000-square-foot mall opened in mid-2015, and there were plans at the time for a 140,000-square-foot expansion to open this year. Phase 2 construction, however, has yet to start.

Malls such as Brentwood Town Centre have Sears stores that are slated to close as part of that company’s dissolution, but Uniqlo already has a Burnaby location. •

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