The fieldwork that I present here took place in and around an H&M store, which is a clothing retailer of what is known as “fast fashion”: clothing styles that move directly to the store from the catwalks, presenting the trendiest clothes right when they are in fashion. H&M is one of the largest chain of clothing stores in America, and also among the most popular, especially with younger age groups. My ethnography begins across the street from the store location that I picked, on Greenwich Street, next to the Westfield World Trade Center, in Manhattan’s financial district.
The store is right across from a Century 21, which is a large department store that also mainly sells clothing. However, this particular H&M is not surrounded by other single-brand stores like some other locations are, meaning that this location is probably not as frequented. It is however right next to the World Trade Center in an area of the city that is heavily-frequented by tourists, so the store has plenty of foot traffic. The sidewalk in front of the store is crowded with tourists holding GoPros and taking selfies.
The storefront is quite aesthetic and visually appealing, with a bright red sign and a clean design that reflects the modern style and image that the company tries to sell to its customers. The store itself is entirely walled with glass, and everything inside is visible. The store is very brightly lit, and the music that is playing inside from the speakers is so loud and booming that it can be heard from the street, making the glass walls reverberate slightly.
There are racks filled with vividly colored clothing, and the shelves are stacked with more neatly folded clothes; they extend so far up the walls that they cannot be reached by hand. The store is also littered with mannequins, some of which are arranged on pedestals, reminiscent of some kind of shrine. On the date and time of this ethnography, 5:00 PM on the 26th of February 2017, the store is quite busy, with long checkout lines and a bustling showroom floor. As I walk in, I notice that there are no shopping baskets next to the door, nor are there any scattered around the store. I am, however, later offered a basket by a sales assistant.
The next thing that attracts my attention is the ads that hang from the ceilings; they feature models from some groups that are typically underrepresented in the fashion world, such as AfricanAmericans and Asians. The ads themselves are also giganticsome might say towering, in an almost imposing way. Many things about the store are rather overwhelming in the same way the ads are; the music is astoundingly loud (and extremely energetic- I found that the vast majority of the music played is upbeat Top 40 songs) and the lights are exceedingly bright, not to mention that the giant assortment of clothes is dizzying.
The clothes themselves do not appear to be organized by category (such as shirts/pants/shoes); rather it seems that the layout of the store is structured by groups of clothing that belong to similar styles. For example, I can make out several separate groups of clothing that each belong to their own unique fashion style: preppy, punk, casual, sporty, and work clothes. It is interesting that the store is segmented by clothing style rather than by clothing type. In this way, when a shopper finds clothing they like, they are immediately surrounded by other clothing, accessories, and shoes they may also like based on their fashion preferences.
Many of the shoes that are displayed alongside the clothing are heels, implying that styles and clothes are for women, although a good deal of the clothes could be considered to be unisex. In fact, the majority of this store is dedicated to women’s clothing. The men’s clothing section is tucked away upstairs and is rather small, compactly organized, and not nearly as extravagantly laid out as the women’s fashion. Although H&M does sell children’s clothes as well, this store in particular does not. Indeed, I did not see any children during my time in the store.
Regardless of style or intended consumer, all of the merchandise is very neatly and attractively organized and displayed. I can try on or touch anything that I can reach, but if I want to see or try on anything that is on the higher shelves, I have to ask an associate for help. Clearly, this store is not designed for the ease of access of neither children nor the elderly. This is probably because H&M’s primary target market appears to be young women, and this is reflected in the way the store is organized.
While observing the customers who are browsing the clothes, I notice that a great deal of them appear to fit a very specific demographic. The largest group that I observed to shop in this store are young (high school to college-age), white, middle-class women. Some of them appear to be tourists, some perhaps not. The most frequented “style section” by this demographic is the new arrivals section, which has the store’s latest acquisitions and hottest fashions. By advertising a cutting-edge style (as seen in their ads, store design, and merchandise) offered at reasonable prices, H&M attracts this kind of shopper.
Asl move past the racks and shelves to the register area, I can see that the line is so long that it extends around the corner of the store. I find that the checkout counter is rather small for such a large store-6 registers and clerks seems hardly enough. Indeed, the line appears to move quite slowly. However, the shoppers in line are boxed in by shelves that are full of smaller merchandise, such as hair accessories, makeup and makeup tools, and socks, and many shoppers go through this merchandise while they wait in line. Some of them do find things there that they then take to the register.
The placement of the merchandise here seems to be both a distraction for customers while they wait and also the store’s last chance to offer something the customer may want to buy. Typical of a Manhattan store, this H&M does not have a public bathroom, so I cannot examine that space. Instead, I head to the dressing rooms to observe what the store is like there. The line is long there too, and this time there are no distractions or anything to entertain oneself with while waiting. Once inside, the dressing room area is rather small and cramped, making for a somewhat difficult time to repeatedly put on and take off clothes.
The dressing room itself, besides being an uncomfortably small space, is also noticeably dirty. I am fairly surprised that I find such a mess inside, including clothes and hangers from previous shoppers who used the dressing room, as well as crumpled receipts from other stores, loose change, and a pen, since the rest of the store appeared to be so clean and well-organized. Frankly, the lighting in the dressing room is also unflattering, and I would think that negatively influences the likelihood of a sale.
After being bombarded by the bright lights and booming music in the store, and then waiting in a long and dull line in order to try on clothes, I am tired, and the last thing I want is to struggle to change clothes in confined space only to find that I do not like the way it looks, perhaps due to the lighting, perhaps not. Furthermore, I know that after all this struggle, if I do want to buy something that I tried on, I have to wait in another long and tedious line. Candidly, I cannot say that I think I find this to be a satisfying shopping experience, much less relaxing, which is exactly the reason why many people choose to go shopping.
I find that H&M presents an unusual shopping experience. Although the atmosphere that the store tries to create is most similar to that of a nightclub (loud music, crowds of people, flashing lights), many people go shopping as a way to relax, especially the particular demographic that H&M appears to be primarily targeting (young, white, middle-class women). With such an atmosphere, shopping becomes more like a entire affair, or party, rather than just an errand to get what you need and get out. And by using that atmosphere, H&M alienates many groups that it does not target, such as children, older people, and working-class people.