FILE PHOTO: At a spruced-up pilot store in H&M’s home town of Stockholm, the chain founded in 1947 is testing new concepts that mark a break with its past.

STOCKHOLM - Step into one of the more than 4 300 H&M budget fashion stores around the world and you often know what to expect: clothes racks crammed with tops, trousers and skirts in a spartan and sometimes cluttered environment.

H&M executives say that’s no longer good enough. Sales have stagnated for years, the company’s shares have lost nearly two-thirds of their value since 2015 and more nimble rivals have adapted faster to the rapidly shifting retail landscape.

Now, at a spruced-up pilot store in H&M’s home town of Stockholm, the chain founded in 1947 is testing new concepts that mark a break with its past - and partly echo some tactics already deployed by rivals to attract shoppers.

The H&M store in the upmarket Karlaplan neighborhood of the Swedish capital offers a smaller range of selected clothes, displayed on airy shelves and tables in color-coordinated sections - as well as espressos and invitation-only events.

H&M planned the layout and ranges with affluent local customers in mind, marking a shift from offering relatively standardized ranges across its stores to catering more for local tastes and means.

“It’s an appealing store, visually, and also the range feels appealing to me. I’m more inclined to head here first rather than to the other stores,” said Josefin Klegard, 38, sipping sparkling wine at an event for local loyalty club members with a pop-up beauty parlor and H&M designers talking about trends.

In Karlaplan, there’s a high concentration of clothes from H&M’s more upmarket lines such as “Trend” and “Premium Quality”, which is usually only available online. H&M’s Swedish website sells “Premium Quality” leather coats for $397 while most H&M coats are priced well below 1,000 crowns.

“We have to raise the entire quality level: to have fewer items in, a nicer presentation of the goods,” said Chief Executive Karl-Johan Persson, the grandson of H&M’s founder.

“That is a task, to be able to sell more with less, and to do that in a cost-efficient way,” he told Reuters.

SLUGGISH SALES

After decades of rapid expansion, H&M had 4 801 stores in 69 countries at the end of May, making it the world’s second biggest fashion retailer after Spain’s Inditex, which owns the Zara brand. But more than two years of sluggish sales had left H&M with $4.1 billion of unsold stock.

A recovery in sales in H&M’s third quarter suggests it might have stopped the rot, but analysts suspect the improvement was largely due to price cuts to shift stock, at the expense of profitability.

Full third-quarter figures are due on September 27.

Majority-owned by the founding Persson family, H&M finally admitted in January it had a problem for a while with its H&M branded stores, which make up the bulk of its business.

Company executives admit they neglected the health of H&M stores as they focused on building online sales and developing eight new, mostly higher-end brands, such as COS and ARKET - even though the H&M brand accounts for over 90 percent of sales.

It was the crowds and clutter at H&M’s store in New York’s Times Square that turned off 21-year-old student Nicole Archie, who now prefers online sites such as Boohoo or Fashion Nova.

“I remember the line being so long that I went to go sit on a bench near the shoes,” she said. “There were laces and strings all over the floor and tangled. If I wanted to purchase a shoe, I wouldn’t be able to because everything was so stuck together.”

Those kinds of shortcomings allowed rivals to steal a march on H&M as customers started to look for so-called destination stores with more attractive layouts and other things to do besides shopping.

Inditex has shut smaller Zara outlets to focus on large, sleek stores in prime shopping areas that are well integrated with its website, helping to keep sales powering ahead.

US department store Nordstrom has opened in small neighborhood locations in Los Angeles, offering everything from handbag repair to juice bars to manicures.

-REUTERS