The Big Boys Go Online


Last year I wrote of an exasperating experience with H&M that highlighted one of the major problems with retailers of that enormity and economy; sourcing. Quite simply, they don’t do it. If someone requires another size or another item not in stock, they are simply recommended to try another store or wander in each Monday when a delivery is taken. But what will be on the van? “We don’t know” they said “we never know.”

It is a frustrating and inconvenient way to shop. I remember thinking that it would be so much simpler to see the item, check the stock in store and if a size is unavailable have some sort of central despatch system whereby a size can be found online and delivered to your nearest store. It was a fantasy of course as the cost for sourcing sizes would outweigh the profit margin on the garment. “It will only happen” I reflected “if they start selling online.”

And what has happened now? H&M have started selling online. As have Zara, another retailer with stock-knowledge problems, and Uniqlo whose online shopping service I recently used as stocked sizes in all central London stores continued to disappoint. “Do you have a small?” I would ask, incessantly, as I viewed the racks crammed with large and extra large sizes. Dumbfounded, they trundled over to a computer by the till, looked earnestly at the screen and shook their heads in regret; “No I’m sorry, but you could try…”

The repetition of such an experience actually put me off the garment in question, an excellently priced wool blazer, and I resolved not to bother to continue my search. Until, that is, I received an email from a friend informing me that Uniqlo would soon be setting up an online store for UK customers. This cheery news encouraged me to resume the quest and within two days of ordering online, it was delivered to my door.

The experience, like most online shopping experiences, while not immersive and definitely lacking a certain tangibility, was comfortable and less hassle. No more traipsing around various branches, dashing across London, making panicked enquiries about sizes, stock levels and delivery dates. Instead, I will use the stores as a showroom. Should my size not be available, I will make for the nearest computer and order there.

So far, I have only experienced Uniqlo. Zara’s online shopping site certainly looks the part and offers a continually updated inventory with a simple black and white interface. The zoom function on the products is particularly impressive. H&M’s offering is not as slick. It is not the full inventory, the product zoom function is poor and unlike Uniqlo and Zara it says nothing at the point of sale about free returns to any store. Interestingly, H&M have been retailing online for a longer period having previously offered the service solely to Scandinavians for a considerable period of time, so their site’s apparent inefficiency and less impressive interface is all the more surprising.