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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.

Millennials are shaking up the travel industry with their penchant for authentic, unique experiences and Muslims are no exception to this rule. The size of the Halal travel industry is expected to skyrocket with more millennials entering the workforce and pocketing greater disposable incomes.

That’s one of the key takeaways of “Halal Travel Frontier 2018”, an industry report published by Crescent Rating in conjunction with MasterCard.

Crescent Rating, which first started analyzing the Muslim travel market in 2008, says that there were an estimated 126 million Muslim travelers in 2016. The number is expected to grow by nearly 30% in the next four years, settling on 156 million travelers in 2020.

In 2015, Crescent Rating estimated total purchases by Muslim travelers to be roughly US$145 billion. This factors in expenditure on Halal food, hotels, excursions & experiences, and shopping. The number is expected to rise to a colossal US$300 billion by 2026 – more than doubling in volume in a little over a decade.

A large chunk of this growth is fueled by millennial Muslim travelers in the fast-growing economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and Gulf countries. 60% of the population in Muslim majority countries is currently under the age of 30 – a stark contrast to the global average, which is 11%.

It’s a demographic that players in the travel & tourism space simply cannot afford to ignore anymore.

“Brands would also need to increase their level of empathy and find new ways to better connect with Muslim travelers,” explains Fazal Behardeen, CEO of Crescent Rating. “This will be key in order to both appeal and empower their Muslim travelers.”

What are Muslim millennials looking for?

One of the seminal insights proffered by Crescent Rating is the emergence of the Muslim female travel segment. This particular demographic is gradually becoming a force in its own right with females opting to travel with their friends & family in small to medium-sized groups.

The key purchasing factors for such consumers are “specialized travel products and lifestyle services.” Destinations looking to attract female Muslim travelers are advised to engender a safe and accessible environment that respects the cultural and religious sensitivities at play.

South Africa and Indonesia are tipped to be major travel destinations for Muslims, but Asia as a whole is expected to eat up the largest chunk. The Indonesian government itself has set up an ambitious target of attracting 5 million Halal travelers in 2019, more than double the 2 million that visited in 2016. Other popular destinations are Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.

Sporting events in Asia such as the Winter Olympics in South Korea this year as well as the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020 are also expected to court significant numbers of travelers from Muslim-majority countries.

Outbound travel markets. Photo credit: Crescent Rating

The potential is undeniable. How can brands cash in?

Muslim travelers tend to weigh in specific factors before reaching a firm decision on a travel destination, according to Crescent Rating. There should be facilities that allow for accessible prayer areas, restaurants & cafes serving certified Halal food, and toilets with provision for ablution. Most travelers will flock to social media or do extensive research on the web prior to embarking on their journey.

At the same time, governments also have an opportunity to help local businesses by offering prayer facilities and Halal food in public locations like airports, railway stations, and places of interest. Taiwan is cited as an example of a country actively working to meet this demand.

Like millennials around the world, Muslim travelers will likely start their buyer’s journey on the web by searching for travel content but most mainstream sites – Booking.com and Agoda, for example – don’t have dedicated listings for Halal-friendly establishments or significant insights on where Muslims might feel comfortable.

“We find that Muslim millennial travelers are like most millennial travelers apart from their uncompromising faith-based needs,” explains Raudha Zaini, marketing manager at Halal Trip, a B2C travel portal for Muslims. “They seek what we call the 3As when they travel – Authentic Experience, Affordable Facilities and Accessible Network – all within the radius of their faith requirements.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the Muslim demographic around the world is expected to grow twice as fast as the overall world population between 2015 to 2060, reaching a projected 3 billion individuals. In terms of consumer spending alone, the global Islamic economy generated US$1.9 trillion in food and lifestyle expenditure in 2015 with projections that it’ll grow significantly to US$3 trillion by 2021.

For brands looking to appeal to a gargantuan demographic hiding in plain sight, they’ll have to focus on crafting their message and developing empathy. That’s key if they’re looking to connect with young Muslims on a personal level. One thing for sure is that the market will continue to expand at a ferocious rate.

So far the rate of adoption has been slow, at best. UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer launched a burkini swimwear collection in 2016 to a spurt of criticism. Despite dissenting voices, the line completely sold out showing there’s real demand.

Other examples are the 2017 launch of the four-star Al-Meroz hotel in Bangkok, the first Halal hotel in Thailand as well as Expedia’s US$350 million in Indonesian online travel platform Traveloka the same year.

But these are tepid responses to a market valued at hundreds of billions. Larger brands can, and should step up to match smaller incumbents like Indonesian halal cosmetics company Wardah, India’s IbaHalalCare, and California-based AmaraCosmetics.