Why the fun has gone out of shopping high street brands like Uniqlo

Where's the fun in hitting the stores overseas when you know you can get exactly the same thing served in a replica store at home?

You may think that the Luxe Nomad is addicted to luxury brands, but far from it – my Chanel collection amounts to a few bits of make-up, now well past their use-by dates. 

I am a Uniqlo tragic. 

Whenever I travel, one of my first stops is the local Uniqlo store, whether it is in Tokyo, New York, Shanghai or London. Of all the "high street" brands, the low-cost, high-style Japanese clothing retailer has the best quality for the lowest prices. Styles are mostly minimalist and practical, using good fabrics – what I would call sophisticated basic clothing. The make is good, the garments last, and it's a great brand to build a travel wardrobe. I don't know anyone in the northern hemisphere who doesn't have one of Uniqlo's lightweight down jackets or vests.

I'll get to the point: Uniqlo is now available in Australia. There's a store in Emporium Melbourne and next week Uniqlo will open a store in Sydney's Pitt Street Mall.

I should be excited, but I'm not. While I'm pleased that friends and family who don't travel as much as I do get the chance to have Uniqlo at home, I'm a bit miffed that the fun of shopping at one of the international Uniqlo megastores is now dramatically lessened by the knowledge that I can simply rock up to the Sydney store and buy the same jacket. 

For me, much of the fun of shopping when overseas is finding something that I can't find at home. But that has become much harder as the world becomes absorbed by a retail monoculture.

Travel anywhere and you're confronted by the same retail brands, usually with the same window displays, as decreed by corporate head offices. Whether it's London, Stockholm, Barcelona or Milan, the most famous shopping streets are now just a blather of familiar stores, from those with low price points such as H&M to the creme de la creme such as Hermes. This is certainly the case with luxury brand conglomerates, cashed up enough to move in on every good shopping district.  Across their stores worldwide, they sell the same goods with centrally controlled prices. Occasionally shoppers can have a currency exchange windfall, but there's usually only a small benefit to buying French luxury goods in France, for instance.

The increasing popularity of shopping online has further broken down international barriers.  Iconic American department stores Macy's and Neiman Marcus ship to Australia, cutting out the need to go to the United States at all. You can buy just about anything sitting at your desk. 

Still, everywhere I travel I see new shopping districts and malls being developed to cater for this insatiable universal craze to buy things, whether it's in bricks-and-mortar shops or via a website. The malls resemble each other, whether they're in Dallas, Texas or Chadstone, Victoria. And the sameness has spilled into the once-great shopping avenues, such as Fifth Avenue in New York, via Montenapoleone in Milan or Regent Street in London. 


Not many global brands have a sense of place by their nature, even if they have LONDON NEW YORK PARIS stamped on the shopping bag. The places don't have a sense of place. 

Some of these megastores are beautiful, but whether it's Zara or Prada, you know what you're going to get once you step inside.  Windows, merchandising, staff uniforms are similar universally. What you've stepped into is Vuitton Ville or Gucci Land, plopped down like an alien spaceship on streets that have lost their individual character. 

I can't avoid the fact that my personal crush, Uniqlo, is part of this mallisation of shopping districts.  It seems as if the company is going for Total World Domination. The store first opened in Hiroshima in 1984, which is significant in itself. It now has 1360 stores worldwide. 

I know lots of people who think this is great and democratic. (Let's save for another time the issue of what factory workers are paid by all these high street brands to produce cheap goods.) Maybe I'm just being a grouch. 

There are still districts and markets where independent shops and sellers flourish, such as the Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, a wonderful renovation of an old housing estate to provide shopfronts for young designers and artists.

The world is not one big joined-up shopping mall – yet. But sometimes when I travel that's exactly what it feels like. 

Welcome, Uniqlo. Kind of.