Among all the leisure wear brands operating in Japan, Eddie Bauer stands out with its stylish and practical designs. The Seattle-based company has had a presence in the Japanese market since 1994, and is currently operated in Japan, 70% owned by Germany company Otto and 30% by Eddie Bauer.
Heading the Japan business is German Matthias Engel whom you’ll always see in the office in Eddie Bauer clothes, naturally. Engel has been with Otto for around 30 years and was assigned to Eddie Bauer Japan in May 2009.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Engel at Eddie Bauer Japan’s HQ in Setagaya Ward.
How would you describe the image of Eddie Bauer in Japan?
We are noted for being a U.S. brand, selling outdoor-inspired apparel for everyday use, for leisure as well as business. We are selling a lifestyle, not just clothing. We don’t follow conventions.
What sort of a year has 2012 been?
I’d say so-so. Everyone in the retail clothing business experienced tough months in June and September due to unusual weather conditions. September, especially, was so hot and we had just come out with our fall-winter collection, like everybody did, and so sales were not as high as we hoping. But since October, sales have picked up.
What are your best-selling items?
For autumn and winter, our famous EB900 Fill Power Down series are selling very well. During the summer, our best-selling items catered to the Cool Biz campaign – apparel made of smart fibers with easy-to-wear functions.
Who are your target customers?
We cater to a wide age range but our consumers tend to be aged 35 to 55, and are very loyal shoppers who have used our brand for a long time.
Are many items made especially for Japan?
In general, we take the core line from Seattle but around 50% of what we sell here is specially made for Japan. The 900 Fill Down series is one example.
What would you say are some unique characteristics of the Japanese market?
You have to keep fresh and place new items on the floor frequently. Customer service expectations are much higher in Japan. Consumers really know the products.
Do you think the retail clothing market in Japan is saturated?
Not really. We have our own niche in the market. There are some brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, LL Bean and also Uniqlo which carry similar items to us but not the range that we do. Considering how much Japanese love to dress, shop, play with clothes and apparel, this market will never be saturated.
How do you market the brand?
Our main advertising method is our sales performance at our stores, outlets and web business. We use those channels. We started our Facebook page when we remodeled our Shinjuku flagship store and we do get a lot of feedback online. But our stores are our social media because we have day-by-day and hour-by-hour face-to-face contact with our customers. In addition, we send direct mail to our core customers.
Are online sales increasing?
Yes, there are. We launched a new web shop right after the disaster last year and from the first day, we had good success. This year, we have seen double-digit sales growth.
How did the March 11, 2011 disaster affect business?
Our stores in Sendai were damaged but by August, we were up and running again. Fortunately, sales picked up since everybody had to buy new clothes. We reduced prices in the Sendai area by 20% for a while. We also donated a lot of clothing and raised money selling bandanas.
How many stores do you have?
Currently, we have 45 retail stores and 12 outlet stores. We are nationwide, but our hotspots are Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu. The outlets are basically in areas which families tend to go to on a weekend trip, like Gotemba, Karuizawa, or near amusement parks. Those stores are located in outlet malls.
What are your expansion plans?
By 2020, we hope to double our store portfolio. Our magic number is 100. Of course, it depends on finding the right location. You need to be in a place where there is easy access to a train station and a large number of inhabitants in the catchment area around those locations.
How many staff do you have?
About 100 staff here and around 800 in the stores. We are fortunate that our employees are really addicted to the brand and so we have a very low turnover rate. It is a fairly young staff.
How often do you visit stores?
I like to be in the field. One day on weekends is dedicated to stores and when I am travelling, I visit 3-4 stores a day.
Do you encourage a work-life balance among your employees?
Yes, I do. I have impressed upon the staff not to stay late just because their boss is still there. We also have a flex-time system.
When you are not working, how do you like to relax?
I like skiing, biking and jogging, but now I enjoy taiko drumming.