PARIS — How far — and how quickly — can fast fashion travel?

That’s the question being posed as Europe’s preeminent "cheap chic" retailers — Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz and Zara of Spain — angle to plant roots in a host of new European markets while setting their sights on others as far away as Russia and Canada.

Over the next year, H&M plans to open its first stores in former Soviet orbit countries Poland and the Czech Republic. The chain’s first unit in Portugal is also scheduled to bow.

For its part, Inditex, Zara’s parent, will roll out its first stores in Switzerland and Sweden — H&M’s home turf. In early spring, Zara is scheduled to inaugurate an 18,000-square-foot address in Moscow, the chain’s first in Russia.

Meanwhile, the companies already have identified many of their next targets. H&M is currently sculpting agreements to enter Canada, Hungary and Italy. Zara, which opened its first store in Italy this year, also said that Canada, where there are eight Zara stores, remains a development priority.

The flurry of activity comes as sales at the behemoth retailers continue to race ahead. For the third quarter ended Aug. 31, H&M reported a 53 percent increase in profits to $205.8 million. Sales in the period rose 15 percent to $1.36 billion.

Through the third quarter, Inditex, fueled by Zara, saw net income balloon 31 percent to $276.8 million. Group sales in the period rose 25.8 percent to $2.77 billion.

Rapid store expansion represents much of this growth. Zara, with more than 500 doors in more than 30 countries, inaugurated 58 stores in 2001 and another 49 in 2002. Overall, Inditex is expected to open about 280 stores this year. The group, which operates five branded concepts apart from Zara, counts more than 1,300 stores in 41 countries.

H&M operates more than 800 stores in 14 countries. Roughly 90 new doors bowed during the last year, mostly in Germany, France, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. The company is expected to open at least as many units in 2003.The majority of the chain’s sales continues to be generated in their core European markets of Germany, France, the U.K. and Spain. At Inditex, 46 percent of total volume in 2001 came from Spain, with the rest of Europe accounting for about 31 percent. H&M generates 88 percent of its sales outside its home market.

In 1999, H&M opened its first stores in the U.S., a market that the company expects to be a major source of revenue in the future.

Neither H&M nor Zara intend to aggressively roll out stores to new markets in the near term. Still, both firms are busy identifying what countries will ripen for business over the next five years.

"To maintain future growth at current levels, we will need more new markets," said Carl-Henric Enhorning, head of investor relations at H&M. "We’re expanding slowly into these [new markets] with the intent of having three to five stores in each of them in the next couple of years. But getting there early is important."

A Zara spokesman said the company’s"main goal will continue to be growing in Germany, the U.K. and Italy. We already have a strong presence in Spain and Portugal. We’re close to maturity in those markets. But we still have growth opportunities in Germany, France and the U.K."

The spokesman acknowledged, however, that new markets would eventually become equally critical in the drive to maintain growth.

"Even if we don’t grow rapidly there now, it’s important to get in," he said. "It’s important to build visibility. It’s important to have the time to get to know the market so that when the moment to expand arrives, we have all of the tools —the knowledge of the marketplace — that it takes to move forward."

Zara operates four stores in Poland and one in the Czech Republic.

Analysts say both companies have enough elbow room to continue to expand in France, Germany and the U.K. to ensure double-digit sales growth over the next five years. But when that time comes, new markets will assume more importance."For the next three to five years, [Zara and H&M] still have room to grow in their key markets, especially in Germany and the U.K.," said Frederik Lijewall, an analyst at UBS Warburg in Stockholm. "But later on, they will need new markets. What you’re seeing now is these guys preparing for the long run. They’re looking to where the growth will come later."

"Their core European markets will continue to be important and, in the short term, I think that they will continue to concentrate on growing them," agreed Sagra Maceira de Rosen, a London-based analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. "All of the other growth is nice and sounds very global. But down the road, these new markets will assume more importance."

So which markets will fast fashion target next? Analysts see potential in many eastern European countries, which are beginning to assert themselves economically, especially Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Consumption patterns [in those countries] are similar to their western European neighbors," Lijewall said. "They want fashion, and they like good prices. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic seem like especially good bets. I’m a little more skeptical on Russia. Russian consumers seem to be most attracted by luxury brands. It may take time before consumers in Russia are attracted to fashion without a big name brand attached to it."

Enhorning said H&M also has its eye on Slovakia and Slovenia.

"Those eastern European countries are very suitable for H&M," he said. "It’s now that [their economies] have matured enough for us to start."

Enhorning explained that H&M likes many of the countries on Europe’s eastern fringe because "we now see a situation in which people have higher disposable income. They have enough money to buy clothes for a fashion reason. They’re not buying clothes anymore just because their old ones are worn out."

Maceira de Rosen pointed to the emerging middle class in eastern Europe. "It’s a fabulous opportunity. H&M and Zara have virtually no competition in those markets. Because there’s no competition, I think they could grow very quickly. And the price of opening stores in those markets is considerably less than opening in major European capitals."She continued: "These retailers have concepts that travel very well. If you go into a market early, you get yourself well positioned to capitalize [later]."

But Maceira de Rosen underscored that those markets will remain "icing on the cake" for many years to come. "The main growth opportunities remain France, Germany and the U.K.

"Look at H&M in the U.K.," she said. "It has only 50 stores. A chain like Next has 300 stores. H&M has a long way to go before it matures in the U.K."

Enhorning also pointed to the potential of greater growth in the U.S., where H&M has opened 40 stores. "It continues to be one of our most important growth markets," he said.

Zara’s spokesman said the chain was also studying further expansion in Asia.Inditex opened its first Zara unit in Singapore in October and around six additional stores are scheduled to open in Japan in the coming months. Zara now operates five units in Japan. "Maybe we’ll pursue more development in Asia in places like Thailand or Korea. But we remain very focused on growing our main European business," he said.

But analysts remain skeptical about fast-fashion firms’ prospects in Asia, where, as in Russia, they say spending remains mainly motivated by luxury brands.

Meanwhile, both retailers are developing new concepts. Last month in Germany, H&M opened its first two H&M Detail units, which carry H&M-branded lingerie and cosmetics. For its part, Inditex rolled out its own lingerie concept brand, Oysho, two years ago. There are already 75 Oysho units.

"Geographic expansion isn’t the only opportunity for growth," the Zara spokesman said. "New concepts also are important."

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