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With almost 4,300 store locations in 69 markets across the world, fast fashion retailer H&M is a quintessential example of a brand that constantly strives to provide high-quality products at affordable prices.

It’s come a long way since its humble origins.

The first store of what would eventually be known as H&M was opened by Swedish entrepreneur Erling Persson in 1947, after inspiration during a trip to New York. Initially, the store catered to womenswear alone; and was called Hennes, Swedish for ‘Hers’.’

The addition of menswear came after Hennes acquired Stockholm-based retailer Mauritz Widforss in 1968. Stores were rebranded as Hennes & Mauritz with international expansion to Denmark, Norway, U.K, and Switzerland starting the next year.

The acronym H&M was adopted as the firm’s official name after it went public in 1970.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Unprecedented expansion

H&M has grown by an average of 20% year-on-year in revenue since the 1980s. Part of the reason for this ferocious germination has been its ability to unearth the latest trends and sense what its target consumers aspire for.

Like other fast fashion companies, the product pipeline is quickly replenished as its marketing and design teams work in unison to keep clothes, shoes, & accessories up to date.

But it’s not enough just to make products that people want to buy. Brand building involves striking a chord with your audience; a message that H&M has carefully crafted over time.

Its focus on sustainability as a major ethos for the brand has earned acclaim. Consumers can drop off unwanted garments (of any brand) to H&M stores globally, which will be recycled and used in future products.

H&M explains that the global ambition is to work towards a “sustainable fashion future”, where unwanted clothes are used for fresh textile fibers and ensure no garments wind up in landfills.

The drive towards sustainability, which has been embraced by everyone at the company – from the CEO to middle management – is an example of how the company has always sought to redefine itself (and save itself from a PR disaster). Much like its products, the global retailer has tried to avoid stasis and remain top of mind for shoppers.

It first introduced online shopping in 1998 when the concept was still nascent, and in the 2000s set on a spree of international expansion, which saw further store openings in Europe, the US, and East Asia.

But central to the strategy of top line growth was the constant addition of new stores. This entailed costs – locations for new outlets need to be scouted, linking the store to a centralized supply chain, hiring staff, and ensuring all brand guidelines are adhered to. Not only does it take time, it can also prevent a fast fashion brand like H&M from trimming prices as much as it would like.

Challenges lurk

Despite H&M’s original launch of its online store in 1998, analysts are unequivocal in their opinion that the company has been slow to adapt to the internet age.

“We view value fashion retailers as the clothing retail segment most disrupted by online,” explains Anne Critchlow, an analyst at Societe Generale.

Digital disruption has eaten into H&M’s business. Pure play fashion ecommerce sites like Asos, Zalando, Zappos, and even Amazon private label brands don’t have to contend with managing expensive offline inventory and retail space. It helps them keep prices low in an attempt to undercut retailers like H&M.

Asos recorded US$2.6 billion in sales last year – a fair distance behind H&M – but the brand operates with a fraction of the same overheads as the Swedish retailer.

Euromonitor International estimates that online channels account for 14% of the global apparel and footwear market, with an overall size of US$231.7 billion. In developed markets, this statistic is even higher: 15.5% for the US, 18.7% for the UK, and 25.9% for China.

H&M is physically present in 69 countries but only offers ecommerce in 43.

The primary target market for fast fashion brands are digitally savvy millennials, which begs the question, why have they been so slow to respond?

CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson says the company has made mistakes in its strategy.

2017 was a disappointing year for the company with its share price sliding to the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis and the announcement that it would close 170 stores in 2018.

But the company plans on a net addition of 220 stores, causing even further consternation from investors who want it to double down on ecommerce and trim expensive offline forays.

“Fast pace is vital,” affirmed Karl last year, signalling H&M’s intention to accelerate its efforts towards ecommerce.

H&M stock isn’t performing well at all.

But this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“[H&M and Zara] have been lagging definitely and they do need things like just faster delivery times; shoppers want it now,” explains Maureen Hinton, global retail research director at GlobalData. “They face a tougher, more competitive market who have less to spend and far more competition with Zalando, Amazon, and others.”

What’s the future?

At the moment, H&M seems to be concentrating on markets with large growth potential. Its decision to open up new stores in India helped increase revenue in the country by almost 100% and resulted in 12 new outlets. The retailer is also selling online in India, hoping to capitalize on the ecommerce rush in the South Asian state.

But this seems to be a repetition of the old business model, which hasn’t exactly gone to plan. The writing’s on the wall. US retailers are in significant stress as they haven’t prepared for the digital age.

Millennials demand an omni-experience i.e. a consistent experience across both online and offline. Zara, has already picked up on this trend with its popup shop in London trying to bridge the gap, whereas H&M only realized it needed to integrate physical and online stores after a 2% drop in Q3 compared to last year’s figures.

The company is also relying on its presence on Alibaba’s Tmall to improve its online footprint in overseas markets.

It seems like H&M is finally aware of the fact that it needs to improve its overall purchasing experience. Nils Vinge, H&M’s head of investor relations, told LA Times that they’re deploying algorithms to support forecast demand and reduce the chance of markdowns.

But are these feeble attempts enough to survive in the hypercompetitive environment that fast fashion operates in today?

Part of the reason startups like Asos and Zappos have been able to snatch away market share is because millennials care more about the product, and less for brands. 51% have no preference between private label and national brands.

For H&M, it’s not enough anymore to sell relatively cheap products. The entire retail experience needs an overhaul and it better start doing that soon or the stock price might see a sustained nosedive.

GUEST POST BY: JEFFREY TOWSON

H&M and Zara are two companies I pay a lot of attention to in China.

  • They have great business models. Fast fashion is really impressive in general.
  • They are popular with Chinese consumers.
  • They are both following market leader Uniqlo in terms of expansion into second and third-tier cities.
  • They seem to be growing steadily, despite slowing growth in apparel overall.

Overall, both look like big winners in China going forward. But I think there are two potential threats emerging. More on this in a second. First a quick diversion.

I keep a list of questions that I think are both important but difficult. These are things I try to figure out over time. One of these questions is “will fast fashion work the same in China as elsewhere?”. As exemplified by Zara and H&M, fast fashion has been a stunningly powerful business model. It continues to expand in the Europe and US – and is now growing in emerging markets. But it’s still not clear to me how well it will do in China, where consumers are fickle, competitors are ferocious and mobile/ecommerce appears to be changing almost everything in retail.

My answer to this question, thus far, is that the Western fast fashion giants are well positioned for China and for rising Chinese consumers.

The Zara and H&M business model has been studied extensively. It relies on syncing consumer behavior in stores with centralized design/manufacturing capabilities. Zara is the more extreme case with manufacturing in-house and re-design and shipping done on almost a weekly basis based on customer purchases. H&M, in contrast, has most of its manufacturing outsourced to Asia.

This “quick reaction” apparel platform makes great sense in China. If >50% of a season’s merchandise is re-mixed and re-designed during the season, that enables you to change with rapidly changing Chinese consumers. In this, “quick reaction” has a strength (i.e., reacting in real time to changing tastes) where many other Chinese consumer-facing companies have a perpetual problem.

This operating model also enables them to push discount versions of the latest designs from the fashion capitals (Paris, Milan, etc.) to China stores in a couple of weeks. Having design centralized in Europe also probably helps these stores in China. It is a differentiating strength relative to both local Chinese competitors and to “slower fashion” houses like Gucci and Prada.

Overall, fast fashion still looks like a great approach for rising Chinese consumers.

One more quick aside

(skip to the below points if you’re reading quick).

One of the benefits of fast fashion is you can have multiple style waves instead of 2-3 fashion seasons per year. One result of this is that consumers tend to come in more often as there is frequently new stuff to see. This, in theory, gets you greater revenue (people come more and buy more). You also get a greater “share of the consumer mind” (a Warren Buffett term). Greater frequency of consumer activity generally creates a stronger brand and a better relationship.

Financially, these frequent style waves also show up as less discounting of goods (a perpetual problem in fashion retail), higher revenue, and better working capital. That’s the theory anyway. And H&M and Zara do produce tons of cash, which they can then put into more scale and more stores. It’s a powerful approach when compared to traditional department stores or luxury fashion houses.

That said, it’s not clear to me that you get these same benefits in China. In particular, I don’t know if you see the same increased visits and branding benefits. Cycle times are already pretty fast in China. Most of the textile/apparel production is actually done in China / Asia. And I’m not sure you have the same historical expectations for a seasons’ new merchandise to contrast with. So I’m not sure about the revenue and gross margins of this model in China. Gross margins are typically 60% elsewhere.

Ok. Back to my main point, that there are two threats to the big China dreams of these fast fashion giants.

Threat 1: Ecommerce, mobile, and O2O are happening fast in China – and these companies are not real fast at this stuff.

Retailers are pretty much ground zero for changes in Chinese e-commerce, mobile, and online-to-offline activity. Digital transformation is hitting this sector like just about no other (except maybe auto and transportation).

First, the rapid adoption of everything mobile in China is transforming the interface with consumers. It is no longer just about walking in the mall and then going into a nice store like it might happen in Sweden. The Chinese customer experience is already a combination of the mall, a store, your activities in various online ecosystems and a rapidly developing logistics/delivery network. The two words you hear over and over in Chinese retail are digital and delivery. How this offline-online mix is going to play out and what “new retail” is going to end up looking like is unclear. But Chinese retail is where it is happening really quickly.

Against this rapidly changing Chinese retail landscape, here are some disturbing facts. Zara didn’t have an online store until around 2010 (about a decade after the Gap). And H&M didn’t start online sales in the US until around 2012. They also didn’t open a shop on Tmall until 2014. These companies are notoriously slow in digital stuff.

Both Zara and H&M are awesome in inventory and logistics. That is their strength. They have a powerful supply chain that connects retail activity around the world with centralized design and manufacturing, almost in real time. But they have been pretty slow when it comes to ecommerce and mobile. And these are precisely the things that are happening quickly in China – and that their Chinese competitors are particularly good at.

Threat 2: The local Chinese competition is moving upmarket.

You also need to consider the recent actions of the Chinese apparel giants such as Peacebird, Heilan, and Septwolves. They operate about 10x more stores than the foreign companies. Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo have 200-500 stores each. Helian and Septwolves have 2,000-4,000 stores each.

These big local competitors have historically been cheaper but they are now upgrading and moving upmarket. They are going to increasingly challenge Uniqlo, Zara, and H&M, especially as they continue to expand into second and third-tier cities.

When you combine #1 and #2, things get really interesting. What happens when you combine rising Chinese competitors with big digital, mobile and ecommerce disruptions? Does that change the fast fashion business model that has been so powerful in so many countries? This is the question I have been thinking about.

Anyways, that said, both H&M and Zara do appear to be in great shape in China right now. They both continue to open tons of China stores each year. They have a nicely adaptable model that is well-suited to the continually changing preferences of Chinese consumers. And Chinese consumers keep getting wealthier and wealthier. So that is all pretty great.

These companies may well turn out to be unbeatable in China, just like in most other places. But I am keeping an eye on these two particular threats to their China plans. We’ll see.


The first version of this article was published here

Workers aged 30-34 claim the highest average gross income levels in the Philippines. And as the relatively young population is set to see a surge of middle class households – especially the single person household – for the next 13 years, strong growth is predicted for the following industries: clothing, footwear, hotels and transport.

Despite an increase in the middle class, the social class E (lowest income class) still remains dominant and represents a bigger market for low cost food, housing and apparel.

The impact of the increasingly affluent Filipino shopper should not be overlooked by global brands as the current focus of many companies is trained on larger markets like Indonesia and Thailand. Traction in the market could easily be tested through a social media campaign as Zara did for Thailand as Filipinos are highly active on social channels. The best way to reach new consumers is through a channel they are already highly active on.

ecommerceIQ

Zara Thailand announcement of online shop on Facebook.

Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo and Nestlé are two global brands that stand out in the Philippines through social media campaigns to attract the country’s almost 40 million Facebook users, a number that is expected to jump to 47.5 million next year.

Nestlé’s Facebook rewards scheme that was launched in 2011 encouraged followers to invite friends to ‘like’ the page in order to win points and prizes. The coffee brand also sells on Lazada and incentives shoppers on Facebook with discounts and promotions.

Earlier this year, Nestlé was awarded by Youtube for releasing one of the most popular Youtube ads in the Philippines. Some other popular campaigns include: 

Youtube Ads Philippines

Uniqlo, on the other hand, has been speedily launching offline stores in popular shopping locations but does not currently offer ecommerce in the Philippines. The company’s recent and successful launch of its shoppable website in Thailand could persuade the brand to move forward with a similar strategy as the markets share similarities. 

Here’s what you need to know today.

1. Sea (formerly Garena) files for $1 billion IPO

Sea Ltd., Southeast Asia’s most valuable startup, has filed confidentially for a potential U.S. initial public offering that could raise about $1 billion.

Sea is considering listing in early 2018, though no final decisions have been made

The company, founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Forrest Li, began as an online gaming portal and has since branched out to add mobile shopping and payment services. A $1 billion deal would be the largest technology IPO out of Southeast Asia, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Any overseas listing of Sea would be a blow for Singapore, which has been trying to woo local startups to sell shares at home as it seeks to build a regional hub for fast-growing, innovative companies.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

2. Philippine blockchain startup Coins tops up series A with another $5m

Blockchain-powered fintech startup Coins announced today it has raised an extra US$5 million for its series A, which it first raised last October.

The funding is led by Naspers Ventures, the investment arm of South African tech and internet conglomerate Naspers.

Headquartered in Manila, Coins uses blockchain technology to enable financial services like money remittances, bill payments, and mobile credit top-up for its users, whether they have a bank account or not.

The unbanked – people who don’t have access to traditional banking services – are a big part of the company’s mission. The startup’s technology helps them access a range of those services through just a mobile phone. Users can top up their e-wallet easily at physical outlets that partner with Coins and thereafter use it for online transactions.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

3. Recommended Reading: Report: ‘Ultra-fast’ fashion players gain on Zara, H&M

Now, in a challenge to those fast-fashion stalwarts, many smaller apparel brands have sped up the design-to-sale process even more, turning fast fashion into “ultra-fast fashion,”

Boohoo.com, ASOS and Missguided can produce merchandise in two to four weeks, compared to five weeks for Zara and H&M and the six- to nine-month cycle for traditional retailers.

“Customers want it now,”said Shelley E. Kohan, VP of retail consulting. “There’s an emotional immediacy attached to that.”

Now lower-priced retailers like Boohoo and ASOS, which have strong (if not pure-play) ecommerce operations, are now challenging even the fast-fashion old-timers, according to Fung Global.

Read the rest of the story here.

Here’s what you should know before the weekend starts.

1. Thai payments startup Omise to raise funding using digital coins

Thai payments startup Omise plans to raise up to US$16 million by allowing investors to use ether, the digital currency of blockchain technology Ethereum.

Investors will be able to use or buy tokens, which will give them a share of transaction revenue generated by their upcoming blockchain-based payments platform Omise Go.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

2. CIMB-Alipay mobile wallet partnership to benefit Chinese tourists

The two parties announced a collaboration to enable the Alipay mobile wallet in Malaysia as an alternative cashless payment for Chinese tourists.

Alipay merchants in Malaysia will have the opportunity to deepen their wallet share from Chinese travellers, by providing an alternative payment channel to current cash or dual-currency credit card facilities.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

3. H&M Invests in supply chain as fashion rivalry with Zara intensifies

H&M, the world’s second-biggest fashion company, said conditions remained very tough in key European markets and in the United States, with shopping behaviour and expectations changing rapidly.

H&M has been investing heavily in IT investments to integrate its stores and ecommerce and make its supply chain faster and more flexible, but detail on progress has been scant.

H&M is also branching out into new concepts to reach a broader customer base and reduce exposure to the increasingly crowded budget segment. It announced a new chain of stores, ARKET, with a slightly higher price range than its core budget H&M brand.

Read the rest of the story here.

European fashion group Inditex, operator of global fast fashion chain Zara is making an aggressive global push this year through expansion of stores, following a 10% rise in full net-year earnings.

The group, which also owns fashion brands Pull&Bear and Bershka, plans to open 450-500 new offline stores in 2017 while closing approximately 150-200 of its smaller stores worldwide. Read more