H&M: Reinventing retail one brand at a time

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Golden sand and baby blue skies made the idea of swapping London for Sydney attractive, but it was the opening of a COS store in Martin Place that sealed the deal for me.

Truth be told, I’ve always been partial to a crisp white shirt, dark navy knitwear and a well-fitted blazer. So when the Sydney sun leaves the torso a little toasty, I sometimes find myself longing for a British winter (or summer) day when Scandi-styled layers made for a classic smart-casual uniform.

For me, rightly or wrongly, H&M sat in the Uniqlo and Topshop bucket; littered rails, fast-fashion lines and queues to cry for. It was the painful side of retail shopping and one I avoided at all costs.

But fast forward a few years, add a David Beckham campaign or two and I can’t but help being intrigued by how H&M Group launches new brands to market without cannibalising its existing portfolio. To date, they’ve managed to build fashion brands with clearly distinct identities and unique offers aimed at seemingly different audiences. 

The latest chapter on the fashion behemoth’s quest for high street dominance is called Arket. I see it as the love child of Country Road and COS on a mission to stick it to its Australian cousin, David Jones. It’s accessible, seemingly affordable and effortlessly attractive. 

The positioning? The modern-day market.

The proof points? Clothes for the whole family. Homewares for the… home. An in-store cafe where you can grab a bite and a flat white. There’s probably lightning speed Wi-Fi for hipsters to upload their Instagram stories at double time. With all this under one roof, it looks to me like Arket is on a mission to bring back the joy of bricks-and-mortar shopping.

It’s a simple concept done well, as far as I can tell from the odd news article and fashion blog.

But beyond the Pantone palette and minimalist design, what really grabs my eye is the effort that has gone into revitalising the in-store experience. This is a far cry from the littered rails and unbearable queues associated with an H&M end-of-season sale. This is a play to remind customers what the high street shopping experience should be - enjoyable, adventurous and (dare I say) stress-free. Not what you would associate with a department store, slash fashion label, slash hipster café. 

All too often brands seeking to reinvent the in-store experience trip up trying to do too much. The intention is to keep it simple and surprise and delight customers with something truly special. But somewhere along the journey of product placement, price point signage and in-store customer journeys, those honourable intentions go to pot. The Top 40 playlist deafens, the staff are AWOL and the perfect jeans are in every size except yours. 

Much like Nordic Noir and literary mysteries, the Scandi’s know when they are on to a good thing. H&M is on to a good thing here and clearly stopping now would be premature. They’ve resisted bloating COS – a brand built with a similar visual DNA – with the tricks that make Arket so intriguing. They’ve added enough differentiation to keep shoppers interested in both. Somehow it just wouldn’t seem right to sell Nike Pegasus 89s in COS. But at Arket, sure. 

For the first time in a long time I wish I could swap the Bondi Beach views for the West End crowds to make my way inside the flagship store to see what all the fuss is about. Arket would sit perfectly on the Paddington end of Oxford Street, but I’m not holding my breath. It took COS eight years to add Sydney to its location roster. For Arket, my stopwatch awaits. 

By G Torto, strategist at Re.

OpinionAmy ScottFashion, H&M, Retail, London