TOKYO -- The throngs of people lining up to buy face masks at Uniqlo stores in Tokyo show something the fashion retailer and its rivals understand: Even for an everyday product, consumers have an eye for brands.
Uniqlo's new face masks, made from the same material used in its AIRism underwear, are a massive hit. Touted as cool and quick-drying, the masks, which go for around $9 for a set of three, flew off the shelves immediately after their release. Uniqlo's online store was overwhelmed. The masks remain sold out, as of June 26.
Uniqlo, owned by Japan's Fast Retailing, is just one of a number of well-known retail and sportswear brands piling into the market for masks. As protective face coverings become an essential accessory due to the lingering virus, many companies see selling masks as an opportunity to attract customers and boost their brands.
"In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, masks are no longer commodities but have become something that hold significance," said Masahito Namiki, CEO of branding consultancy Interbrand Japan.
On the day Uniqlo rolled out its AIRism masks, U.S. sportswear brand Under Armour began taking orders for its reusable UA Sportsmasks, which sell through its website for 3,000 yen ($28) each. Its stock of 30,000 sold out in just one hour.
Japanese sportswear brand Mizuno in late May started selling masks made from a soft, stretchy tricot material normally used in its swimsuits for 850 yen each. Sporting goods maker Yonex in mid-June began offering masks made from a material impregnated with xylitol, a chemical often used as a sweetener in chewing gum. Yonex says the mask helps keep the wearer cool by absorbing heat in response to sweat. The masks are priced at 3,696 yen for a set of four.
Ryohin Keikaku, operator of the no-frills home furnishings chain Muji, sells masks made of 100% organic cotton for 999 yen a pair.
"There is obviously demand for masks among consumers," with little sign the spread of the coronavirus is slowing, said Dairo Murata, a retail analyst at JPMorgan Securities. The trend is more evident in summer, when people are more likely to seek highly functional masks they can wear in hot and humid weather, he added.
Mask-wearing has become much more prevalent as the virus has persisted, and some countries have made them mandatory to prevent further outbreaks.
In Asia, Vietnam requires people to wear masks in public places, while Indonesia's Jakarta Province mandates those using public transportation to don masks. In Singapore, those not wearing masks in public face a fine of 300 Singapore dollars ($215). Although Japan does not require masks, people are strongly encouraged to wear one when they go out in public.
The World Health Organization previously said there was insufficient evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks. But it recently changed its position and now recommends wearing masks when physical distancing is difficult. Unlike N95 masks, which are typically used in medical settings and can block extremely small viral particles, masks sold by retail brands do not completely block the virus.
Takahiro Kazahaya, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse Securities, argues masks can be a showcase for brands. Consumers expect a certain level of quality when they buy a branded mask, he said. "The question is whether the brand can meet those expectations," Kazahaya said.
For retailers, mask sales contribute little to the bottom line. In the case of Uniqlo, for example, sales of AIRism masks will amount to 1% or less to the total, said Mike Allen, an analyst at Jefferies Japan.
"The point is that the brands can lure more customers to their stores by selling masks," said Allen. With many people not shopping during the pandemic, masks offer a good reason to visit stores and may encourage people to buy more clothes later on, Allen added.
Interbrand Japan's Namiki said that companies can emphasize their social commitment by selling masks and that this helps burnish a company's image. "By selling masks, brands can send the message that they are socially responsible and doing something good for society," he said.
Tadashi Yanai, chairman and president of Fast Retailing, has also become keenly interested in tackling the novel coronavirus. This week he pledged 10 billion yen of his own money to researchers at Kyoto University to study the virus and other diseases.
Kazahaya of Credit Suisse stressed that if the brands can win the trust of consumers through masks, it will encourage them to buy other products. "It's just a mask, but it's still a big deal," said Kazahaya. "You can never underestimate that."