Providing the softest and highest-quality towels and apparel, UCHINO’s products offer a relaxing experience while enhancing the human senses.
In the last 25-30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturing competitors who have replicated Japanese manufacturing processes but done so at a cheaper cost, pushing Japan out of mass consumer markets. However, we still see many Japanese firms as leaders when it comes to luxury consumer goods. How have Japanese brands been able to maintain their leadership despite the stiff price competition?
It definitely comes down to quality in my mind. Japanese companies produce many world-class quality products and consumers are seeking quality more than ever before. Here we have been actively developing products that use delicate materials, however, other competitors are pursuing ways to make things cheaply. To make the high-quality materials that we have, we prioritize quality rather than quantity.
Currently, Japan has an aging and shrinking population, compounded by a low fertility rate, with the latest estimates putting Japan’s population under 100 million by 2030. This means a smaller domestic market to sell products to. How are you reacting to this demographic challenge?
We aim to develop items that feel good to skin so it is accepted by the elderly as well. Like many companies, we realized that just Japan is not enough, so we are looking to markets abroad. We have started by selling at famous department stores around the world and the hope is to then transition to selling online for overseas customers. As you have mentioned, the population of Japan is shrinking so we need to apply ourselves on a more global scale. We can expand further into Asia and benefit from the large population. In fact, Asia has a bigger population than Europe and is becoming a hot spot for emerging markets.
You have a variety of brands, but one of your most recent is UCHINO relax. Could you tell us a little more about the brand, the concept, and the retail storefront?
The brand relies on being very lightweight and that is achieved from an original gauze we have named Marshmallow Gauze because of its exceptionally soft texture. The idea was to create a brand that evokes that feeling you get whilst lying in a bath. Light and delicate comfort that feels soothing from the moment you slip it on. What started off as towels has expanded to shirts and pajamas, giving you that bath time feeling until you go to bed.
The market for these kinds of soft comfort wear is growing in Japan. We have heard from customers that they appreciate the comfort and lightweight fabric feeling throughout the year. Sales for this are good and we are finding that relaxing wear has generated excellent results for us, especially in southeast Asia, like Singapore.
The big difference between our garments and competitors is that we make the materials first and then decide what to do with them. Our garments are expensive, but it is because of the quality, which you feel immediately when it touches the skin. Thermal comfort is extremely important to us, and the feeling inside the clothes is equally important as how the clothes feel on the outside. It is not just how it feels either, it is also how the wearer’s body feels and how we care for the skin. Wearers are able to sleep well as the clothes are not stuffy.
The Japanese do not traditionally wear bathrobes, and usually, after a bath, they will wipe themselves down with a towel and then put on relaxing nightwear. Our best-selling product right now is our patented material. However, I would say that pretty much everything we have here is patented in some form or another. In fact, UCHINO is proud to offer one of the world’s thinnest towel materials which itself is easy to wash, and it can be used for multiple occasions. Some people take it with them when they go to sports clubs.
Is your patented material specifically designed for and sold in the Japanese market?
While it is sold elsewhere in Asia, it has been specifically designed for the Japanese market to match with the washing environment. In Japan, some people prefer to hang their laundry inside the house rather than outside, and for that reason, we have developed this towel to dry quickly. You could say that the products that we offer are more like lifestyle choices.
There are many products that are gentle on the skin, even for babies, and one of our towels, called the Blissful Towel, is a best seller despite the JPY 10,000 price tag. As far as a towel is concerned, it touches the skin directly, so people buy it not just for function, but also for the sensory feeling that comes along when using it. We were even able to register the term “Blissful Towel,” and the idea was to convey to our customers the fact that when they use our products, they will feel happy. It took around three years to develop, which helps to partly explain the price tag. The towel features yarn that is one-seventh of the thinnest generally used in the United States, so it does not fluff and is absorbent. One feature you will often hear about with towels is the softness, but that will lessen over time, however with our Blissful Towel, the softness keeps. If a customer pays that much for a towel, we want them to feel nice when they use it.
Towel and clothing products obviously come into contact with skin, which can be very sensitive, especially in Asia, as it differs from skin seen in Europe and America. How do you adapt your products to the different types of markets that you are in?
It is true that people all over the world have different types of skin and body sizes. However, I would say that what feels nice to the skin probably applies to everybody. In the US, they seem to prefer a thicker towel, but actually, it was an issue of productivity because it is much easier to make a thicker towel. We take the opposite approach, and instead of productivity, we prioritize how it feels to the consumer. Some in the western market prefer lighter towels, and this is the kind of product that only we can make. A lot of the western population thinks that if a towel is thin, then the material is poor. We are making towels that are thin and luxurious at the same time.
On this misperception that because a towel is thin, the material must be poor: why do you believe that is still prevalent today?
I think it is just because some people have not experienced it yet. I would agree in some respects that a lot of thin towels are poor, so we are probably the rare company that is making towels that are light and high quality. In this day and age, it is not necessary to use a huge towel to dry yourself, and the more important characteristic you need to consider is absorbency. We find the towels at international hotels heavy and uncomfortable.
About 30 years ago in Singapore, there were almost no Japanese towels, but once we introduced our towels there, they sold about three times more. Singaporeans found Japanese towels much more comfortable than the western heavy towels. Once people in the west actually try our towels, we think we will sell much more in that region.
Our Marshmallow Gauze wear is sold for over JPY 20,000 and when it was first announced, people were shocked at how expensive it was. Despite this, once you use it, you realize how nice it feels and come to understand the reasoning behind the cost.
Once your skin realizes something feels good, it is difficult to go back to the kinds of products you were using before.
In the department stores here in Japan, they have a section for particularly affluent people, and what they really want is better health. Once they realize how comfortable our products are, soon enough, everyone in the family will want one.
We believe that our material is suitable for babies, and we are also certified by Japan Atopic Dermatitis Patients Association.
Some of your products are made with sufferers of atopic dermatitis in mind. Can they also be applied to other skin conditions like eczema?
Yes, we recommend it to them. They are designed to keep your skin moist, breathable, and are able to retain heat. It allows plenty of airflow inside the material itself which prevents stuffiness. Patented worldwide, Marshmallow Gauze is what other gauze makers cannot create. The way the material is contoured means that it will not come in direct contact with the skin, which is thought to be critical in proper skin care. It is light and perfect for activities where you are perspiring a lot.
Shinshu University is a famous institution in Nagano prefecture and we have teamed up with them to conduct joint research. We even have data from that study showing that 100% of participants were able to sleep better using our products. Also, the monitoring research company conducted surveys and results came back at 97%. The reasons why sleep is easier to achieve with our products is quite simple: thermal comfort. When you wear our clothing when sleeping, you do not feel uncomfortable even when you sweat, you will not feel sticky or itchy.
What SDG activities does UCHINO conduct and how are you contributing to the sustainable development of Japan?
Sustainable cotton is a big aspect for us here at UCHINO. Our target right now is to switch to 100% sustainable cotton. Another activity we do is the collection of used towels. These are recycled into fibers, which in turn are transformed into products again.
Another product I would like to highlight is our hat towels made by Marshmallow Gauze and Airy Touch, which are often utilized by chemotherapy patients. The breathable and soft nature of the product is appreciated by customers. There was a request from the US because the towels there are too thick to make hats and they utilized our material to make hats for cancer patients. What we have been doing is donating towels to the US. We donate towels and gauze caps to Iwate Hospice Association, a community organization that supports cancer patients. Furthermore, we jointly developed towel and gauze caps with a pleasant texture. UCHINO endorses the activities of Iwate Hospice Association and will continue to provide support in various ways so that towel caps can be delivered to patients around the world. Through initiatives, we have donated many towel caps and towels to date, continuing to widen the circle of towel caps.
UCHINO has stores all over the world, but one particular country that you are quite active in is Singapore. How are your operations in Singapore going and can you tell us some of the successes you have seen there?
Our Singapore store on Orchard Road has been particularly successful, with over USD 2 million in sales in just one year. The quality of our products is acknowledged in Singapore, so we are finding that not only are our towels selling well, but we also see promising sales with the UCHINO relax wear. Despite pajamas being quite popular, we see more potential for this particular market. It is interesting to note that sales are highest for our most expensive items.
What strategies have you employed to maintain your success in Singapore?
We are just doing what we do best and making what we can. I think our unique features and products speak for themselves and set us apart from competitors. I do not think there is another company that can imitate us, especially in terms of manufacturing. Even if they were to imitate one element, it is impossible to copy everything we do.
Over the years, we have built our brand and UCHINO can be found in the most reputable department stores around the world. There are many competitors, but we think that we might be the only one that is able to provide products for use from bath time to to sleep. This makes it easy for us to succeed in department stores and has allowed us to build a dedicated customer base. From this, we are looking to expand to omni channels like e-commerce.
We aim for one material that we have developed to be the lightest knit in the world made from 100% cotton. The yarn is ultra-thin, resulting in a soft fabric. We are making T-shirts to test it, and the feedback that we received is that it is addictive. As mentioned earlier, we make the material first and then we figure out what to do with it and I think this is a good example of this practice. We are now in the process of shifting to deciding what to do with this development.
The approach is now to look at the markets we want to target with the material and perhaps consider a collaboration with companies that are strong in those target markets. One particular market we are interested in right now is baby as well as bedding and skin care. People are willing to spend a lot of money on a mattress, and what we want to do is create a mindset where people are also willing to spend money on wearable items for better sleep and wearable skincare.
You have talked about the process of developing the material first and then deciding what to do with it afterward. Could you elaborate more about the development process? How do you conceptualize and then make the material?
The concept is to make something that provides care for the skin, and that is why we insist on 100% cotton. Breathability and heat retention are a must with nightwear, and many other makers will have shirts and pajamas that do not feature any kind of moisture absorption. This results in shirts that wearers will wake up in that are wet from perspiration. With our materials, this is not the case. With UCHINO, all developments start and end with the keywords ‘light’ and ‘soft’. Something that is light, soft, and nice on the skin has been our development ethos since our establishment.
In winter, wearing light and breathable clothing is not practical. Are you looking to apply your materials to winter clothing?
We have some materials that are suitable for winter seasons other than Marshmallow gauze. Marshmallow waffle gauze for example is combined with waffle weave and Marshmallow Gauze. It is warmer than flannel.
When an average consumer goes to a department store, is there someone there to explain the quality of UCHINO? How are you able to communicate the uniqueness of your products to your customers?
Potential customers can also find a wealth of information on our website. If I am completely honest, our ability to communicate is a challenge, and I am sure we would sell a lot more if all of our salespeople could talk like me.
Do you have any global competitors that can produce a similar quality as UCHINO?
The answer to that is subjective, but from my point of view, I strongly believe that the answer is no. There is no other company on the planet that is able to offer such quality and such a comprehensive lineup of soft and breathable comfort wear. There are plenty of companies that make big and bulky towels, but in terms of cotton, I do not think there are any companies that are close to our quality.
With the advent of the COVID pandemic over the last two years, physical retail stores have struggled. Yet, at the same time, online sales in 2021 jumped by 13%, making Japan the fourth largest e-commerce market in the world. How has your business adapted to take advantage of this growth in e-commerce?
One thing we emphasize to customers is the need to use the product in order to fully understand the benefits. E-commerce is a challenge because customers cannot physically touch the products, therefore the current task is to direct customers towards e-commerce for repeat purchases. With the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people stayed at home, and therefore there was a lot more emphasis on purchases for things to be used at home. In this regard, our products are a perfect fit.
Imagine that we come back five years from now and have this interview all over again: what are your goals that you would like to achieve?
I made the flagship store UCHINO Touch in Tokyo because I wanted to focus on the tactile sensation of touch, and something I would like to do in the future is expand further on the five senses. Ideally, we would like to create a one-stop solution for relaxation. Human DNA has not kept up with the advancements in society, so as we move towards digitalization, life is going to become even more stressful. There is a need for more relaxation, and as modernization takes place, there is an opportunity to take people back to more relaxing and stress-free times. This is what the UCHINO brand stands for and it is my mission to expand upon that.