For almost 40 years, H&M has been bringing energy and style to the British shopping scene. We spoke to the brand’s UK and Ireland Country Manager, Carlos Duarte, about its plans for the future.
When H&M first ventured outside its domestic market of Sweden in 1976, its founder Erling Persson felt Britain was the logical place to set up shop.
Since then the growth of the group has been relentless. Today, it trades in 54 countries and in the first half of this year sales across its territories were up 14%. There may be more competition out there than ever before but H&M remains a titan of the retailing scene.
Its UK and Ireland operations – with turnover heading towards £1bn – are overseen by Carlos Duarte from offices near London’s Oxford Street.
Whilst much of the talk in the retail property business is around how the big chains are no longer as acquisitive as they once were, Duarte is emphatic about H&M’s strategy.
“H&M has a continued global expansion plan, and here in the UK is no different,” he reports.
“We’re always looking for areas to open new stores or strengthen existing stores with re-fits and extensions.”
Before the end of the year, a new flagship store is due to open in Dublin and other recent openings include The Waterside Shopping Centre in Lincoln, The Clarendon Centre in Oxford and Belfast’s Forestside Centre.
“Shopping centres and retail parks tend to perform very well for us and our last few openings have included shopping centres across the UK and Ireland,” he adds.
In a multi-channel world, the other challenge for Duarte is to make sure its online platform is fully integrated with its physical store presence.
“To meet the rapid development of the online market, in particular shopping via smart phones and tablets we must continue to invest in this area and our online expansion is a focus at a local level, as well as globally.
“Our digital store is fully mobile-adapted and very popular with our customers and we also work closely with the H&M catalogue. I believe we have a great balance of both platforms. We expect more innovations to come, both online and also within our stores.”
The recession fostered a climate in clothes retailing of ever more economical pricing but Duarte contends that has always been central to the H&M offer and has meant it will always be competitive.
“We offer collections that are wide-ranging and varied for women, men, teenagers and children, and from quality basics to the latest fashion trends, regardless of age, budget or personal style.
“Our business concept, ‘Fashion and quality at the best price’ is fundamental to H&M and the ways in which we work every day, we should always be offering our customers inspiring fashion with unbeatable value for money.”
Over the last decade, H&M has led the way in forging partnerships with celebrities and leading designers.
David Beckham is perhaps its most famous brand ambassador and this November will see the launch of its collaboration with the brilliant young fashion designer, Alexander Wang.
Fashion blogs were buzzing earlier this month when Rihanna was spotted wearing a grey crop top and matching leggings from the new Alexander Wang x H&M line. This sneak peek has only added to growing clamour around the November 6th launch, and demonstrates H&M’s expert handling of these collaborations.
Duarte observes: “We believe high-fashion design doesn’t have to be a matter of price. From the first collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004, to our collaboration last year with Isabel Marant, the designers are always so unexpected and different from previous years”.
Releases of the new collections are intricately stage-managed and last year’s unveiling of the Isabel Marant collection caused a frenzy of interest both in-store and online. A queuing system had to be implemented at stores with shoppers getting colour-coded wristbands that gave them 15 minute slots to buy while the online shop dealt with massive demand.
This Christmas will see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga star in the H&M TV ad campaign. The two superstars will both appear in the commercial, performing a track from their recently released album Cheek to Cheek. Last year, Lady Gaga officially opened H&M’s massive Times Square flagship store in New York, with fans having the chance to meet and shop with their idol.
However, while H&M’s deft handling of celebrity models and designer collaborations drive shoppers into the stores, Duarte is clear that its enduring offer is built around style, quality and – of constantly growing importance – sustainability.
The group is the biggest user of organic cotton in the world and is conscious of its role in the larger retailing picture. It has a stated policy of being willing to pay more for organic cotton because it is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and contains no genetically modified organisms.
Duarte comments: “To us, design, quality and sustainability are not a question of price. Quality is key. We work pro-actively to make sure our products are durable, well-made, functional, safe and free from harmful chemicals.
“Sustainability is a huge focus for us as a company, with considerable resources devoted to increasing sustainability at H&M, and working towards being sustainable in every area of the business, on both a global and local scale.”
The H&M Conscious Foundation is an independent organisation that is working to drive long-lasting positive change for people and communities. In 2013, the Persson family donated close to £50m for projects focusing on clean water, education and the economic empowerment of women.
H&M is genuinely a global brand, meeting the needs of customers all over the world, and this is what motivates me
Duarte has been with the group for more than 20 years and enjoys its close knit community and the challenge his job brings.
“It’s a challenging market, and I love to be challenged. I find it so interesting to see how our business concept, fashion and quality at the best price works on all markets, regardless of cultural differences and economic conditions.
“H&M is genuinely a global brand, meeting the needs of customers all over the world, and this is what motivates me.”