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Uniqlo parent enlists Google to make fast fashion faster

Fast Retailing taps AI to streamline processes and quickly respond to trends

     © AP

TOKYO -- Fast Retailing, operator of the Uniqlo casualwear chain, plans to leverage Google's artificial intelligence and other technologies to speed up its operations and minimize unsold products.

"Google has the technology we are looking for," Fast Retailing Chairman and CEO Tadashi Yanai told reporters in mid-September, when he was a guest speaker at Google Cloud Next, a two-day event in Tokyo. It was an usual remark for a person who rarely praises anyone in public.

Fast Retailing has been using Google's image recognition technology for projecting product trends and customer demand. In July, the Japanese apparel retailer launched a new Google-developed service to help customers select and coordinate items on the Uniqlo app.

The system, dubbed Uniqlo IQ, is a valuable source of big data on customers' buying preferences. It can collect feedback from shoppers as well.

"We have 130,000 employees worldwide, and if we can proceed with planning, manufacturing and selling in parallel, we will only need a tenth the time we are spending now," Yanai said in a keynote address at the event on Sept. 19. "I want to build a new process, and look forward to what Google can bring to us."

Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene, left, and Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai discuss the companies' collaboration at an event in Tokyo in mid-September.

Even a speaker from Google seemed wowed by Yanai's vision.

Partnering with Google and gaining access to top-class technology will allow Fast Retailing to bring innovation to the fashion industry, Yanai said. Few apparel companies have teamed up with the world's top tech players.

Back in 2015, the Uniqlo operator joined forces with consulting company Accenture. The goal was to use big data to adapt to changing trends and provide personalized services to shoppers.

Fast Retailing has also built a large logistics center in Tokyo's bayside Ariake area with help from Daiwa House Industry. Starting in spring 2017, the site has been key to a drastic reform of the group's operations -- from planning and manufacturing to logistics and sales -- with the help of cutting-edge technology.

At first, the logistics hub experienced a number of hiccups, but the endeavor is beginning to bear fruit.

On top of mining big data, the retailer has introduced contactless product tags, known as radio frequency identifiers, to help shop staff quickly complete scans for inventory management.

Now Fast Retailing aims to move on to the next stage: developing a production system capable of swiftly responding to sales data on individual items.

Also in spring 2017, Yanai unveiled plans to make clothing that is tailored to customers' preferences and deliver it to stores or homes within 10 days of the order date. But the project seems to be progressing more slowly than he anticipated.

Motivated, perhaps, by the limited headway, Fast Retailing is increasingly shifting its attention to working with Google and transforming itself into an "information driven" manufacturer and retailer -- one that can swiftly incorporate customer preferences into its product planning.

During the Cloud Next session, Yanai also referred to Google's self-driving car business and said he wants to make comparable efforts in the apparel industry.

Fast Retailing encountered a series of setbacks along the way to building its Uniqlo empire. And the apparel chain faces stiff competition from global players like fast-fashion chain Zara and online giant Amazon.com. The company is hoping to fend them off by bringing more Google technology into the fold.

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