French clothing brand LACOSTE carving out niche for itself in Japan
As soon as you walk into the offices of Fabricant Co, which manages the LACOSTE brand of clothing and footwear in Japan, you can feel a buzz in the air. There is an enthusiasm and energy level evident among the staff who are mostly dressed in the latest cool fashions from the French apparel brand.
Heading up the operation is Dieter Haberl. Born in Austria, Haberl studied finance and economics in the U.S., and got a Master’s degree in international management at Thunderbird. After working for Coca-Cola in Europe for seven years, he worked in Japan with Coke from 1997-2004, followed by a stint at Gap, then Reebok. He took up his current position as president and CEO of Fabricant Co Ltd a year ago.
What is the image of LACOSTE in Japan?
That is something we ask ourselves constantly. We have come a long way in a short time. If you had asked that question a few years ago, a lot of teenagers would have answered, “It’s my dad’s brand.” Recently, we’ve seen a much broader demographic drawn to LACOSTE and right now, our single biggest customer group is men in their 20s, followed by women & men in their 30s and 40s.
In Japan, the brand is easily recognizable because of the crocodile logo. Wani-chan is an endearing term used by our Japanese customers.
What attracted you to LACOSTE?
LACOSTE presented a new set of opportunities. It is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is a very well-known brand but if you look at distribution and population, I think we still have a lot of opportunities in Japan. Plus we have a unique set-up in Japan – we actually have a factory in Japan, unlike other apparel makers.
You’re not just selling clothing, but rather a lifestyle, aren’t you?
That’s right. Being a French brand, elegance and an elegant lifestyle are a core part of our brand identity, along with the French concept “joie de vivre”. Our current advertising campaign called “Life is a beautiful sport” very much captures that.
How do you market yourselves?
We have a good media mix of advertising with digital, print and some TV.
What trends are you seeing among consumers?
Although we are selling more items for men, half our customers are women. Japanese women are the most demanding customers in the world. That’s why doing business here is a pleasure … because you are serving the most demanding customers in the world. We find that the women are selecting our brand for the men in their lives.
How many retail outlets do you have?
Currently, we have 132 stores and we have prudent expansion plans. We are a premium casual brand and we want to be careful where we place new stores. Maybe we will add a handful of stores each year. That includes department stores. It’s important to find the right location where the customer profile fits our brand.
Are any items tailored specially for the Japanese market?
We try to pick a balance between our global line-up and products tailored for the Japanese market. The global merchandising approach has made huge progress in the last 18 months and we are complementing that with local needs assessment. Colors are always an interesting topic among our merchandising team. Our customers want a balance of LACOSTE’s strong tradition with innovative new designs and functionality.
How has the first half of the year been?
The first six months have been good. Snowstorms in February put a dent in sales because of traffic disruptions to our supply chain. However, one positive sign was that we didn’t see a fall-off after the sales tax hike in April. There was no drop-off in purchasing. It shows the brand has strong momentum.
Is it a seasonal business?
Yes. Spring and summer are our best seasons. We have started to actively develop our fall-winter line-up and our outerwear line already features some real hit products.
Are online sales increasing?
Online sales are increasing rapidly. The convenience of shopping online, once you know your size, is a significant factor driving those sales. To facilitate that even further, we have just launched an even more convenient state-of-the-art mobile site.
What about large sizes for foreigners?
I get that question a lot. Right now, we don’t do this at all of our stores. We are addressing that gradually, starting with our Shibuya store where we have some items in large sizes.
Is the retail clothing market in Japan saturated?
It’s tempting to say the clothing retail market in Japan is saturated but every year we see new brands come into the market and be very successful. It is extremely competitive over a very broad playing field. What makes a difference for us is our loyal customer base. We have a program called TEAM LACOSTE and membership is still growing rapidly. Our customers buy very consistently and regularly because they know they can rely on the quality of our products and service. We’ve had people come back after 12 years after a button fell off and we fix it. We pride ourselves on our customer services.
How do you get feedback from your customers?
We try to be close to our customers through our store staff. We also have a call center and we are about to get a lot more active on social media, changing it from a global approach to a local approach. That will give us a lot more interaction with consumers. Today’s consumers want a dialogue, not a one-way communication from the brand. They want to know what is coming up, what we have in our global line-up and what we will have in our Japan line-up to complement that.
Another thing we are always looking to do is to create a bigger and broader experience for our customers. Many customers have an affinity for sports or a certain lifestyle and those are very interesting combinations for us. So we give our customers a chance to attend Davis Cup tennis matches, for example. We’ll be doing more of those events to address the lifestyle of our customers in a way that goes way beyond the shopping experience.
How often do you visit stores?
I try to go out to the stores at least once a week. I don’t get to the faraway stores as often as I like. We are all over Japan from Kyushu to Hokkaido. I also like to see what competitors are doing. I encourage our team to do that as well. There is always something new out there.
How many staff do you have?
We have 60 staff at headquarters, 430 in stores and 75 in the factory in Akita. It’s a good mix. It’s a team that has fun together and that’s very important.
Do the staff have to wear LACOSTE clothing?
It’s not a rule that staff wear LACOSTE clothes every day. It grows on them. Ours are some of the most comfortable, yet elegant casual clothes to wear. So you see many different styles expressed by our staff
What about you?
My wife laughs and says I have too much already, but she always finds me nice new products in our line up.
How do you like to relax when you are not working?
I read a lot, run a bit, and occasionally play a little ice hockey in Tokyo and in Koriyama.