Nov 18th, 2010
Last week my two daughters, ages 20 and 24, and I joined the legions welcoming H&M to downtown Portland. Lines formed a full 24 hours before the store opened. It was cold and the rainy. That’s dedication for you. We waited till the next day, a day my youngest proclaimed her second birthday (it’s better than Christmas, Mom!). All of that is for a department store, not a rock concert or a visit from the pope.
This duo exhibited the same behavior three summers ago when Oregon got its first IKEA near the Portland Airport. But they actually made the grand opening, driving in the dark to join hundreds of people waiting anxiously to be among the first to browse the trendy home décor store. I chose to wait a couple of weeks for the frenzy to die down.
Now I ask you, how do these two retail stores do it? How did they achieve rock star status with such rabid fans? On the face of it, they’ve both figured out what people want and give it them – all over the world. Our family virtually lived in the Walldorf, Germany, IKEA for a few months after we relocated near there in 1998. We had to buy all our closets because German houses aren’t built with them. IKEA’s closets fit the bill as did a great many other things like its restaurant, which is a smashing idea – shoppers get hungry, right? If our kids had been younger we probably would have thought the onsite daycare was even more wonderful. But I was plenty happy with the cleverly designed furniture and other home supplies that could be had for cheap.
Good designs for cheap – that’s the key, I think, to both stores. Collectively, our family has shopped at H&M stores in Germany, Spain, England, and in the U.S. in New York, California, Washington and now Portland. Every one of them offers the same thing: trendy styles for low prices. I venture to guess that H&M uses the same factories in the developing world that the more pricey stores use, but it doesn’t tack on a hefty surcharge for the label. A trip to an H&M requires much less price tag vigilance—and much more fun.
After our very satisfying introduction to Portland’s H&M, my daughter Ginny reminded me of the Swedish roots of both companies. That got me thinking about the connection between Sweden’s society and these two wildly popular stores. It may be a reach, but I think there is one. Here’s my theory: Sweden has one of the most progressive social networks in the world, if not the most progressive. From birth on Swedes have access to good health care that doesn’t impoverish them. Both parents are encouraged – and paid – to stay home for up to 16 months with their newborns. And the country has solid employment. In short people worry less, which leaves them with more time to be creative and come up with all kinds of things (Stieg Larsson books, for instance) and companies like my two favorites. It’s like Sweden has taken seriously Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and applied it on a national level. Its populace has security issues – employment, health, family, etc. – taken care of, so the members can turn to self-actualization: creativity and problem solving are two. Keep going on that track and you get acceptance of facts, morality and lack of prejudice as the top tier.
In my book the Swedes are on the way to being fully self-actualized. And their economy’s just one more indicator, albeit a very obvious one.