H&M, Zara and Uniqlo are three international clothing retailers with over 1,000 stores each worldwide. The competitive companies target similar markets but employ different strategies in their business models to manage the distribution of product lines.

Zara is the youngest of the trio, having begun in Spain in 1975. The company is owned by textile giant Inditex. Zara’s ownership of its supply-chain steps allows for more rapid product turnover; Zara can design a product and have it sold in stores a month later.

Uniqlo was purchased by Fast Retailing Co. in November 2005 and was originally founded in 1949 in Japan. Its business model is based on that of The Gap.

H&M, or Hennes & Mauritz, is the oldest of the three. It was founded in Sweden in 1947. H&M is publicly traded and owns several brand lines, including Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday and COS.

These three clothing distributors have differing approaches to their ownership of materials, sourcing of manufacturing and treatment of auxiliary brands.

Distribution Channels

H&M has the most physical locations of the three companies, with over 3,450 stores worldwide as of November 2015. Zara boasts 2,000 stores, and Uniqlo has opened 1,400 stores. Uniqlo's introduction into the U.S. market occurred in 2005 with three stores; since then, 42 stores have opened on the East and West Coasts as of November 2015. H&M's infiltration into the U.S. market has been more prolific, with 407 stores. Zara currently has 55 stores open in the United States, with a majority of its locations in Spain, where there are over 450 locations.

Part of H&M's strategy to boost sales has been to offer customers featured products that have been marketed as designer collaborations with well-known names such as Versace and Alexander Wang. By offering these products within H&M locations, the company boosts its own reputation by partnering with valuable figures in the fashion world, and it offers its customers additional lines for purchase that are different in look and style from the mainstay designs of the company.

Zara's strategy is to offer a higher number of available products than its competitors. While most clothing retailers manufacture and offer to the public for sale 2,000 to 4,000 different articles of clothing, Zara's production has been markedly higher, at over 10,000 pieces produced per year. This unique feature of the company's strategy has allowed Zara to appeal to a broader number of customers with unique tastes.

Uniqlo's distribution channels are concentrated in its country of origin; over 700 Uniqlo store locations are in Japan. Uniqlo's distribution strategy has centered on the timing of its products' introductions into stores, with new products created as a function not of quantity, but of demand. Uniqlo responds to changing trends in Japanese fashion and specifically caters its designs to mimic the minimalistic style that is popular in Japan. This affects the appeal that Uniqlo may have for Western distribution channels, and may be the determining reason behind its low number of store locations in the U.S.

Branding

By purchasing and developing brands that have unique styles, H&M hopes to appeal to a wider market of clothing shoppers. Each H&M brand has its own price range and visual concept; for instance, Collection of Style is sold at a higher average price than H&M's principal basket of products and focuses on the European markets. Alternatively, Monki sells clothing pieces that are half the price of those sold by Collection of Style and features designs that are comparably youthful.

Zara divides the products sold within its stores into lower garments and upper garments, with price points being higher for the upper garments. Zara hopes to be perceived as a high-end retailer with affordable prices. Its flagship stores are strategically opened in key traffic points worldwide that have high real estate costs, such as its Fifth Avenue location in New York City. Zara does not stress advertising as a part of its branding strategy, differing from Uniqlo; the company instead funnels the dollars that would have gone toward advertising into new store openings.

The adapted strategy from The Gap that Uniqlo employs is to position its brand as private-label apparel; the company creates its own clothing, and Uniqlo only sells it within the confines of its brick-and-mortar stores and on its website. The company also uses sporting events to appeal to the general population. The designs that Uniqlo creates tend to be more simplistic and practical than those sold by Zara and H&M, and they appeal to a different audience as a result.

Factors of Production

H&M, like many commercial clothing retailers, outsources the manufacture of its designs to countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh where labor is cheap. H&M does not directly own any factories and instead partners with 900 suppliers worldwide, most of which are located in Europe and Asia. To transport its goods from factories to stores, retailer relies on rail and sea as a means to promote efficiency within its internal logistics. The designers of H&M's products are based out of the company's home office in Stockholm.

Zara is able to design, manufacture and sell its products in stores quickly because the company owns many of the vertical factors of production. Zara has a main manufacturing plant in the city of La Coruna, where the clothing retailer was founded. Of all of the products that Zara manufactures, 50% come from Spain, and 24% of manufacturing is outsourced to low-cost producers in Asia and Africa. Zara's approach to fashion differs from Uniqlo's in that it attempts to predict customer needs rather than follow current fashion trends. The turnover of products within the store is very high, with an average article of clothing remaining on the shelf for only a month.

Uniqlo manufactures its clothing within Japan. It began using cheap labor in China when Japan experienced a recession in the 1990s. The company has contracts with 70 manufacturers to produce goods. Uniqlo has also forged a partnership with the Japanese denim manufacturer Kaihara Denim.

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