Uniqlo masks are here, and shoppers are rushing for them, just like those in Japan did
By the rather late opening hour of eleven, extremely long queues had formed outside many Uniqlo stores here. Shoppers had lined up for the brand’s AIRism masks, launched today and met with the same enthusiasm as a KAWS T-shirt drop. Over at the first Uniqlo store to open on our island at Tampines One in 2009, the buzz was that the queue had formed as early as nine, but one of the centre’s security guards said that people came as early as eight (one staffer later confirmed that to be true). Three minutes past eleven, the line outside was more than twice the length of the entire facade of the store. Even bubble tea stall Chi Cha San Chien, three floors down, wasn’t enjoying such a long line.
When we asked a middle-aged woman, laden with grocery, how she came to know about this particular mask, she replied with a frown, “It’s all over the news.” When we wondered if she thought they’d be better than what she has been wearing so far, she rejoined as if she was asked a stupid question: “Must be, lah. If not why so many people queue?” But she decided not to wait when a shopper emerging from the store—happy that she had secured the masks—told us she was in line “for at least 45 minutes”. Was it worth the wait? “Aiya, can lah. Not very long, what.”
A staffer told us that they had, in fact, anticipated that the response would be this good. Yet, it was not certain why there seemed to be some confusion as to what the procedures were apart from the queuing, which became a tad disorderly outside the designated area, where there were no marking to tell people where to stand. Two uniformed, social distancing enforcement officers had to tell many to keep their one-metre distance. A staff member went through every single person to make sure they had scanned the QR code for SafeEntry although they were yet in the store. Another made sure those too preoccupied with themselves were not an obstacle to others coming down an escalator. And another, with a tray in hand (on which samples of the mask were available for viewing, not trying), handed out little, crudely-printed-and-cut “purchase tickets” (she had to handle inquiry too, which meant she missed some waiting in line). Quite a hive to go through just to purchase a mask.
The number of packs a shopper is permitted to buy is restricted. It was clearly advantageous that a decision be made prior to visiting the store. The masks can be had in packs of three for S$14.90. They are available in black or white (no mix!), and in three sizes: S, M, and L. You are allowed to pick only one colour in one size (if you have selected a black in small, you can have a white in small, not two of the same colour for one size), which means a customer may buy up to six packs of masks per visit. Once sold, the masks cannot be exchanged or returned. Interestingly, no member of the staff was seen in the AIRism mask.
The queue moved fairly quickly as the line was dedicated for mask-buying only. Other customers not purchasing the mask may use a separate entryway. Despite this, most customers told us that they were in line for close to an hour. We were informed by one of the crew members that all the points of sales were opened and all were processing mask purchases with only one point catering to regular customers. But one shopper later told us that when she got to the counter, the reverse was true: only one out of four cashiers was serving mask buyers, while the rest attended to other shoppers. How many packs did she buy? “Only one,” she whispered. “If good, tomorrow I buy some more.”
As it turned out, the masks were sort of limited. According to a staffer, they would be available for three days only. Each store is supplied with a fixed quantity per day. About a thousands packs are limited to each store, with the larger outlets allotted more. “We won’t be restocking for today once what we have for now are sold,” she informed us. Upon hearing this, a woman immediately called someone and told the person on the other end of the line in Mandarin, “Eh, once finish, no more, leh. You want, better come now.”
At first encounter, the mask, as noted by first-time users in Japan, looks rather like underclothing (pouch of men’s thong?!). But they are not as thick as originally described. According to Japanese media reports last week, Uniqlo had “redesigned” the AIRism mask “following customer complains”. At its first launch, many Japanese had thought the masks too thick for warm-weather use, and that they were not as breathable. The new version, still three plies of the AIRism Cupro fabric (here, essentially 90% nylon and 10% spandex) for the front and rear, is now made of a mesh-weave, rendering the full mask lighter and definitely more breathable. It appears that they have made some adjustment to the fit, too. The mask is not as snug as it was previously reportedly to be. In fact, some women tried on the mask after the purchase, and thought the M size too large for them. And as there is no wire sewn into the bridge, the area around the nose tends to gape. The mask seems to cover a large area of the face too, with the base stretching along the entire jawline, possibly a con rather than a pro for those concerned about “maskne”.
Although many people consider the Uniqlo AIRism mask a ‘fashion’ mask, the actual product is far more basic and utilitarian, totally apart from ‘designer’ masks now appearing like mushrooms after the rain. There is no branding, no fancy stitching or interesting seaming, and definitely no attractive, contrast-coloured, adjustable ear cords. They don’t even look as attractive as those sold by home sewers who use cottons for quilting for their masks. Yet, from the enthusiastic response, it is clear that Uniqlo’s have captured the interest of mask wearers, even if many others are beginning to be lulled into a false sense of security and have become slack in the wearing of masks, thinking that the low community transmission numbers today are a good reason for masks to become chin support.
We managed to get our hands on a pack of the mask, so we thought we’d put one to test. The mask feels really comfortable in the hand, and the tactile superiority on the face is unmistakable. It definitely isn’t snug, and is comfortable to breathe in. And, more importantly, it did not heat up even outdoors. We took it for a ten-minute walk under the noon-day sun (the outer layer comes with SPF 50 protection) and, to our surprise, it was not a heat trap for the mouth area. One SOTD reader even told us that her glasses did not fog up. Next, we spent two hours in a room with the air-conditioning deliberately turned off (only an electric fan was on), typing this post, and we did not feel a desperate need to yank it off.
Earlier, outside Uniqlo when it opened its doors, a man had asked one of the social distancing enforcement officers what the queue was about. When he was told that the people were in line to buy masks, he wanted to know if the masks are better than those “they sell outside”. “These masks are cooler,” the helpful young chap said. The man persisted: “But are they better?” The target of the questioning coolly replied “Yah! Uniqlo, mah.”
Update (24 Aug 2020, 15:30): The queue outside the Uniqlo Tampines One store is no more. A member of the staff informed us that the masks are still available. Inside, there is a queue for regular purchases, but none for masks.
Update (24 August 2020, 20:30): A poster announcing the availability of the AIRism mask is now plastered with a “Sold Out Today” label. A few people ask the person regulating entry into the store if there would be more masks available and are told to “come back tomorrow.” They are not informed that the masks are available for three days only.
Some observers are surprised that the Uniqlo AIRism masks did not sell out a lot sooner. There is suggestion that many consumers have had their fill of masks and many are hoping that face coverings would no longer be required. As such, they do not see the need to buy more. In addition, many do no require any more black or white masks since the free ones issued to citizens and PRs prior were in black and, later, white. Uniqlo AIRism masks would be available in grey in Japan next month. The store’s staff is unable to tell us if that colour would arrive here in the future. In fact, no one knows if the masks would be available again after the 26th of August.
Update (26 August 2020, 18.15): At Uniqlo’s Orchard Central Global Flagship Store, the AIRism masks are still available at racks placed in the second and third floors. It does not look like they will sell out by this evening. A cashier told us they will continue to sell the masks tomorrow, until stocks run out.
Note: Uniqlo is careful to state on the packaging that their “masks do not completely prevent infection (infiltration)”. Use judiciously
Uniqlo AIRism masks, SGD14.90 per pack of three, are available at all Uniqlo stores from today until 26 Aug (Wed). Photos: Chin Boh Kay