When Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB opened its first Japan store in Ginza in September 2008, there were huge crowds and a gala party atmosphere. It was a pleasant surprise for Christine Edman, H&M country manager for Japan, and a testament to how well known the brand is in Japan.
Since then, H&M Japan has weathered the 2008 Lehman shock, the 2011 disaster, the sales tax hike this year and is expanding with 45 stores and nearly 3,000 employees – all under the watchful eye of Edman.
Edman, who grew up in Tokyo, went to college in Pennsylvania and then obtained her MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics. She worked with Mattel Japan and Aunt Stella Japan before taking up her present position in March 2008. Bilingual in English and Japanese, Edman seems to have boundless energy. When she’s not opening or visiting stores, organizing collaborative events with designers such as Alexander Wang, she keeps busy with her two small children.
Overall, H&M has had a good year. It reported a near 20% increase in third-quarter net profit. During the January-September period this year, H&M opened 209 stores for a total of 3,341 globally, including franchises and outlets under the company's other brands. It plans to expand its business further over the coming year to build on the popularity of its collections by opening 8 to 10 online markets next year and 375 new stores worldwide.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Edman to hear more about the business in Japan.
I remember the Ginza launch in 2008. That must have been an exciting debut for you.
I was deeply moved that so many people knew us before we launched our first store in Ginza. They still remember the launch party … 5,000 people in a small store. Even now, when we open a new store, we have a lot of customers line up for opening and we occasionally hold a huge party.
How would you describe the image of H&M among Japanese consumers?
We are known as a global fashion brand and for yearly designer collaborations like our most recent one with Alexander Wang. Japanese consumers are really fashion conscious and very trend sensitive. Japanese are focused on quality, good value for money and a very high expectation for customer service, and that’s what we offer.
At the same time, we don’t just sell a product. I think we are selling a lifestyle. Our stores also reflect Swedish-based values – a work-life balance and empowering women managers – which are very different from Japanese society.
Are your lines the same in Japan as overseas?
All products are the same, although we localize in terms of size range and assortment, certain colors and styles. But the trends are the same. We use a lot of global campaigns because we want to bring to Japan what’s trendy around the world, whether it’s New York, Paris or wherever.
Who are your typical customers?
More than half of our customers are women. We also have products for both men and kids and they are well received by Japanese customers. A lot of people think we are only a young people’s fashion brand. However, fashion is not about age but attitude. We target everyone and provide fashions for the office, party, sports. A lot of our customers stay with us as they get older.
I should also point out that Japan is an amazing market for fashionable men who are also very trend sensitive. We just had a launch of a designer collection, Alexander Wang x H&M, and we had many men customers.
Can foreigners get large sizes at H&M?
Yes, they can. We have a size range from 32 to 42 for ladies.
Has 2014 been a good year so far?
Yes, it has been a very good year. We just opened our 45th store in Osaka and we plan to open three more this year. On Nov 8, we opened our first store for a sister brand of H&M called COS in Omotesando.
How did the sales tax hike last April affect your business?
H&M’s business idea is to offer quality and fashion at the best price. When the sales tax was raised in April, we decided not to pass this increase onto our customers. The reason for this decision was in order to ensure we always provide our customers with an attractive offer, and good value for money; a decision from which we have received positive feedback from our customers.
What about online sales?
We hope to start online sales in Japan in the near future, though I can’t say exactly when. I believe there is huge potential there.
How do you get feedback from customers?
Various ways. Besides the stores, we have a customer service center open seven days a week and we get feedback all the time on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. A lot of the comments are from people who see a trend or magazine clipping and they want to know if they can get that item, or they have questions about designer collaborations.
What are the challenges for you?
Japan is a mature market and super competitive. There are so many foreign and domestic competitors since we came into the market six years ago. So, to maintain the loyalty of our customers, we have to remain new and give them constant surprises. That is one of our biggest challenges.
Finding the right location for new stores is another challenge. I’m out and about all the time looking for locations – in malls, city centers, in train stations. It’s an exciting market.
Do you get a lot of job applications?
We do. Having fun is seen as one of the company’s core values. We help our employees to shape their careers, whether it is in sales, marketing or management. It is inspiring to see people grow and it moves me.
What is your management style?
I’m trying to be hands-off now. During the journey from having opened one store to 45, my management style has changed. I used to be in the stores all the time and I used to know all staff intimately. My approach is different now and I’m working more strategically and delegating to people to grow the company.
Do you maintain a work-life balance?
I try to plan family time because I am a working mother with two small children. I always walk my children to school and I am with them on weekends. If I have to go to stores on weekend, then I take another day off.
How many H&M clothes do you have?
My closet is full of H&M but out of choice.© Japan Today