Will H&M connect with India?

MINT

Will H&M connect with India?

Last week, Delhi got a buoyant city story, one that has played out in many cities around the world. A serpentine queue of shoppers stood—some had camped since the previous evening—outside India’s first H&M store, at the Select Citywalk mall in Saket, on 2 October, waiting for it to open. The first three entrants received fat discounts, and the first 1,000 shoppers got an H&M India tote bag each.

A promotion drive was in place at Delhi’s domestic airport and in the city. The words “Get Ready to Do Some Serious Shopping”, written on billboards, over images of trendy young models, had made the vocabulary clear even to those not conversant with the brand’s DNA.

Just two evenings earlier, a curious crowd, mostly mall- goers who were not among the 900-odd invitees to the VIP shopping party, had stood peeping into the store from the other side of the enclosures. The red carpet stretched from the entrance of the mall to the store inside. Dozens of “Can I help you?” staff in black T-shirts manned the churn; dozens of H&M sales crew walked around the store to assist shoppers. Shopping bags got filled rapidly as dainty small bites with champagne and wine went around. A flat 20% discount on purchases and the presence of film actors Ranveer Singh and Jacqueline Fernandez were the icing on the cake. Singh took to the floor, dancing in abandon; Fernandez swirled.

As many would agree, the real star was the H&M merchandise. Apparel and accessories for men, women and children, lingerie, basics, including the brand’s Studio line for Autumn/Winter 2015, as well as Modern Essentials selected by David Beckham were all there. Everyone who has been to any H&M store in the world knows it as one of the most well-priced retailers. Even so, when the prices are converted into your own currency, you understand what good pricing really means. So the next morning, when Karl-Johan Persson, the chief executive officer of Swedish brand Hennes & Mauritz AB, which became H&M over the years, told us that “we want to surprise our customers”, it was tempting to say that they already had.

More stores are in the pipeline—one in Delhi’s Ambience Mall, soon, and one in Bengaluru in early 2016. “Mumbai soon, but Bengaluru before it,” said Persson.

It takes a moment to absorb the fact that the young-looking, cheerful and unruffled Persson, dressed in a dark jacket and trousers with a white shirt and brown sneakers, is the CEO of this giant multinational established in 1947, which now has 3,511 stores in 55 countries.

Going by the prompts of the sales crew, “quality” trumps “surprise” at H&M. That’s the word they used every time a customer remarked, “Wow, great prices.”

Asked if the word quality had been consciously drilled into them during training, Persson smilingly said, “No, it’s a part of the business idea. We don’t just want to offer great prices.” He didn’t quote the brand’s much blared motto, “fashion and quality at the best price”, but managed to convey the message without a hard sell.

No H&M story would be complete without the inevitable comparisons with Zara, the world’s largest fast fashion retailer. Yet H&M’s collaboration with designers such as Stella McCartney, Karl Lagerfeld and Roberto Cavalli, to name a few, its topical advertising campaigns, and the brand’s sustainability argument and work through its Conscious Exclusive sub-brand—made from materials such as cotton, recycled polyester, Tencel as well as organic leather and silk—is helping style its distinction. Distinct particularly from Zara’s all-consuming (if immensely exciting) quick turnaround of wearable, affordable trends that tumble down from catwalks across the world.

Many know that H&M urges its customers to give back clothes—in any condition, from any brand in the world—so that they can be recycled.

Just last month, a film narrated by American singer-songwriter Iggy Pop displayed the brand’s Close The Loop collection and global recycling initiative. It is called “There Are No Rules In Fashion But One: Recycle Your Clothes”. A few instances of products created from this vast recycling process, like clothes and bags, are displayed at the Delhi store.

If you are looking for a sentimental story to wear with trendy garments, H&M is the brand. Its campaigns with social organizations in different countries, against drug abuse, HIV and other such concerns, have pushed sales as well as interest.

Even so, any brand, however trendy or well-priced, must strike a “connect” with consumers in the new markets it steps into. So while it is easy to speculate that American brand GAP will most likely be hit by H&M’s entry into India—also because the Indian consumer is a bargain-happy shopper—it is not as simple to predict that the kurta-kurti-tunic-churidar-stole-ruffled skirt-leggings fashion that is our own breed of fast fashion will be eclipsed. What H&M does have is the potential to influence the dressing rituals of Indian youth even more than Zara. It offers dozens of wardrobe possibilities in the form of trendy key pieces, basics for layering and slick evening formals that can be mixed with Indian separates, then accessorized boldly.

Asked if the merchandise would shadow the Indian consumer’s culturally programmed preference for a bit of flash, Persson said they would monitor what’s selling in the initial days and then tweak the store’s content. He added that they are open to collaborations with Indian designers as they go along.

If someone were to list the most compelling fashion stories of the last one month, H&M’s newest campaign with hijab-wearing Mariah Idrissi, who runs a Moroccan-style beauty parlour in London, would certainly be one. For the first time, a global brand has tapped into the growing global voice of hijabi fashion—and is also conscious of the Internet as the melting pot of trends that influence buying behaviour online or in brick and mortar shops. Like anywhere else, however, mobile marketing, advertising and billboard communication are all on the cards, said Persson, nodding affably when asked if H&M would be open to an India-specific campaign. “Why not?” he said.

So should #BetiInH&M go viral sometime in the future, you will also know it is time to wear a cotton salwar with a cropped denim shirt, a brocade jacket and ankle boots. Some from H&M, some from beti’s own closet.

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