At that time before time I did not buy my own clothing and did not understand what "too damn much" meant. Oh, how times have changed! "Too damn much" means a lot to me now, as I imagine it does to many others out there, just trying to stay dapper enough to get a date while being able to afford something better than a cardboard box to take said date back to. Thank goodness then for Hennes & Mauritz.
Hennes & Mauritz, better known to budget mods as H&M, is an apparel company dealing worldwide — though mostly in Europe — in women’s, men’s and children’s clothing as well as cosmetics. Working toward the goal of "giving the customer unbeatable value through the combination of fashion, quality and price" (though mostly fashion and price), it is no surprise that the conglomerate is homed in Sweden: HQ of all things affordably trendy or trendily affordable such as Ikea, Ericsson, and to some extent, ABBA.
Hennes (Swedish for "hers") was founded in 1947 by Erling Persson following a post-WWII trip to the States during which time the novelties trader was much impressed by efficient, high-volume outfits like Macy’s and Barney’s. Steffan Persson, descendant of the foresighted Erling, maintains a majority control of the company.
In the 1960s the company added the hunting, outdoor gear and menswear store Mauritz, scrapping the hunting and the outdoor but keeping the men. Expanding through Europe, H&M entered and prospered in neighboring Finland, Norway and Denmark, moving later, and profitably, to the UK, France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. It is in these outside countries that H&M reaps more than 80% of its US$ 3 billion-plus in sales (2000, E 3.36B), making it Sweden’s third largest company in terms of stock market valuation.
Currently, in 14 countries, H&M claims over 30,000 employees and operates 730 stores…no…731…no…732….no…. The point here is that H&M is expanding at an ambitiously frenzied pace, planning 100 store openings a year, including many in new, untested markets such as Spain and the notoriously fashion-fickle (though some would say fashion-bankrupt) US.
A great deal of H&M’s success can be attributed to the ability of its in-house designers, paradigms of piggy-backer style, to quickly recognize trends and act, churning out designs that look very much like what other more cavalier, more chic – more expensive – designers are releasing. This may sound a little seedy from a fashionista standpoint, but do H&M loyalists care? No. In fact, some matter-of-factly pleasure in thinking they got one up on the Big Boys of chichi.
A run through an H&M warehouse (their "stores" aren’t small – two 30,000-plus square-footers in space-deprived Manhattan alone) reveals racks full of moderately priced garments that look uncannily similar to what brands such as Guess?, Diesel, Zara and Banana Republic are carrying.
My own research, conducted very scientifically around the office, revealed five of my co-workers (four female, one male) with swashbuckling tales of great deals found and loyalties sworn: "I get all of my work clothes there because they’re cheap and have a bit more style than Gap," (male). "I stop there every day on my way home to see what’s new," (female). The latter point is an important draw of H&M’s retail strategy. With fresher product than most New York delis, H&M stores get new merchandise daily. Yes, D-A-I-L-Y. Much of this new stock comes through a rotation system between stores experiencing runs on certain lines. Sources report that H&M turns over its entire inventory a whopping eight times a year.
Cliché teaches us that you’ve gotta’ spend money to make money and industry observers agree that H&M has gotta’ spend millions of dollars to build brand recognition in the US if it is to flourish. This is especially complicated for two reasons. First, though H&M sells clothing under 20 different labels, it is the retail chain’s name itself that is the big draw. None of the individual 20 brands offers anything in the lines of potential brand loyalty. Second and related to this latter loyalty point, since many of the consumers are buying H&M clothing primarily because it resembles that of other more expensive, and "out-of-reach" brands, their loyalty is simply to price, not product. This means that H&M is competing not only with discounters, but also with each of the brands it replicates; both the Old Navy’s and the Guess?’s of the already-obese US market.
In New York and several other large US cities, H&M has so far established a comfortable beachhead from which to begin its foray into the world’s largest, and potentially most lucrative, clothing market. Industry analysts are in agreement that H&M will need to import vast quantities of merchandise with which to impress American punters, blitzkrieg its expansion into the landlocked States and tweak product lines to better fit American tastes and, uh hum, Americans.
Any one of these three is no small task in itself, but did I mention US recession? The economic downturn is sure to stifle H&M’s US numbers for the immediate future, though, as a discount chain, it should fare better than many, including its competitors. In fact, tightening spending habits may produce the exact sort of client H&M aims to enchant; those looking to look as good as they looked in the boom years without the boom.
Though the multinational retains, at great expense, the likes of American household names (Chloe Sevigny, Cindy Crawford, Johnny Depp) for advertising, it remains, both philosophically and prosaically, the embodiment of Swedishness. Upon being hired, senior staff from every store are sent to Sweden to be instructed in H&M’s retailing style. When it comes to the business of doing business, it is characteristically Scandinavian and liberal; compassionately, and unassumingly, christening one label BiB (Big Is Beautiful) for women sizes 16 to 30.
At the same time H&M takes the uncharacteristically big-business position of openly addressing environmental and labor issues such as posting H&M’s Code of Conduct in Cambodia on its website and initiating a ban on polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-manufactured products. (A huge corporation with a heart of gold may be wishful thinking. But a huge corporation with a discernable heartbeat is promising.)
Even the (classically bombastic) executive prospective on success in the dicey American market is the personification of stereotypical Scandinavian humility:
"It’s very difficult for us to say if we are going to be successful or not," says Christian Bagnoud, H&M Director of Marketing.
Also of note with regard to H&M: www.hm.com, the company’s website, is slick and effectual, a virtual blueprint for what similarly minded global brands should be doing. Though not completely without its limitations, the site’s clean lines and easily navigated links are well-served by the enlistment of an appealing rave thump (analogous with that heard in H&M stores) and a rather clever timeline imaging of the corporate history.