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Famous clothing brand H&M continues to face backlash over controversial ad

By AFP | Published Sun, January 14th 2018 at 12:48, Updated January 14th 2018 at 13:22 GMT +3
H&M continues to face racism accusations. [Photo: Courtesy]

A racism scandal at H&M is the latest indication of management problems at the Swedish clothing giant, once the darling of shoppers but now struggling to make the switch to e-commerce, analysts say.

The fast-fashion group is one of Sweden's largest export brands and industrial heavyweights, alongside Ikea, Spotify, Electrolux and Volvo.

Owned by the Persson family dynasty, it has been listed on the Stockholm stock exchange since 1974.

It has collaborated with superstars like Beyoncé and Madonna, and prestigious fashion houses including Sonia Rykiel, Lanvin and Kenzo have designed exclusive collections for the group.

H&M is one of the most well-known brands in the world, with global brand consultancy Interbrand ranking it the 23rd best known company worldwide in 2017, ahead of Ikea and fashion luxury goods manufacturer Hermes.

But lately, H&M has struggled to lure shoppers into its 4,553 stores around the world, and has been slow to develop its online offering.

"It's been one of the toughest years for H&M," Joakim Bornold, an economist at the investment bank Nordnet told an International news agency, noting that the company's stock price has fallen by 35 percent since January 2017.

In December, the group announced a four percent drop in fourth quarter sales from the previous year, to 50.4 billion kronor (5.0 billion euros, $6.22 billion).

Not only have H&M sales almost never declined, but the drop was bigger than analysts had expected.

H&M, which also owns the brands COS, Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday, Arket and H&M Home, said in December it would be closing stores, but didn't specify how many or where.

The company will publish its full-year earnings report on January 31.

"They have failed in describing their vision for the e-commerce business and how they plan to compete with truly digital companies," Bornold said.

"That, combined with worse sales figures than expected, has affected investors' faith in the company."

Chief executive Karl-Johan Persson rejects that analysis.

"Our digital strategy is crystal clear. E-commerce, for all our brands, is definitely a part of the company that is going very well and is profitable," insists Persson, heir to the company founded by his grandfather Erling.

At 42, he has headed the group for eight years. Some observers have questioned whether he'll soon be shown the door, though his father Stefan Persson, the chairman of the board, has ruled out such a move.

Racism scandal

As if the company's earnings weren't problematic enough, H&M last week found itself in the middle of a social media storm, accused of racism.

Its online catalogue featured an advertisement of a black boy sporting a hoodie with the words "Coolest monkey in the jungle" written on it.

According to Gothenburg University marketing professor Eva Ossiansson, the gaffe is a sign that H&M has lost its Midas touch.

"It signals that the company has problems to cope with, both in terms of how their business should develop with regard to e-commerce and the digitalisation in our society, as well as in their communication," she said.

The company tried to quash the criticism by apologising and withdrawing the ad and the item from sale. But the damage was done.

NBA superstar LeBron James expressed his anger on Instagram on January 9, hours after the garment was removed from sale.

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