High street target of the new Vikings

Clas Ohlson, the latest Scandinavian retailer to hit these shores, is hoping its Woolies and Ikea hybrid will attract UK shoppers.

Imagine the love child of Ikea and Woolworths and you'll have some idea of what it's like to shop at Clas Ohlson – the latest Swedish retailer to try its luck on the British high street. The Scandinavian newcomer has even taken over some old Woolies premises, but can it ever occupy the shopping stalwart's place in British hearts? Judging simply by the queues on the streets of Watford and Kingston lately, the signs are encouraging.

For it takes a hardy breed of shopper to stand in line on a chilly December morning, even when the prize is a £20 portable DVD player. But for the past two weeks, bargain hunters have done just that – and gone on to wait more than an hour at the tills. Perhaps the Swedish coffee and traditional folk music laid on to entertain those waiting to pay helped. The stores are bright and fresh, with high standards of merchandising, as might be expected from a company with 127 branches already in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

But the choice of goods – focused on hardware – on offer in a Clas Ohlson shop is almost overwhelming, with 11,000 products on sale. The company even uses the same technique adopted by Ikea of forcing shoppers to do a full circuit of the shop before they can pay. Add to this the sheer size of the Clas Ohlson shops, between 15,000 and 20,000sq ft, and it is all too easy to come out on to the street confused rather than satisfied.

Still, Mark Gregory, the UK managing director for the chain, says: "Footfall is higher in the UK stores than in Sweden, but the average purchases and conversion rate [the number who buy something] is lower. But there has been a good, positive trend upwards since we opened our stores."

Clas Ohlson's entry to the UK market was low key. It opened its first UK store in Croydon last year, followed by a second in Manchester. This is perhaps not surprising for a company that started out as a mail-order business in the Swedish town of Insjon in 1918, but took until 1989 to open its second shop, in Stockholm.

However, the UK store opening programme is picking up pace rapidly. In November, Clas Ohlson

opened a shop in the former Woolworths site in Reading, opening in Kingston, Surrey, again in a Woolworths, earlier this month. It followed this with a store in the former Zavvi site in Watford yesterday. The company has announced an agreement to open a shop in the Clayton Square shopping centre in Liverpool.

If Mr Gregory is right, and sales increase steadily at each shop Clas Ohlson opens, it might be because it takes the average British shopper a few visits to work out exactly what the self-styled "usefulshöpp" is for.

The choice of some of Woolworths' prime town-centre sites is no coincidence. Clas Ohlson sells many of the lines that were mainstays of Woolworths. Cleaning materials, homewares, hardware and DIY items form the bulk of the Ohlson range, along with some electronics, small electricals and PC supplies. But Ohlson sells only a very limited range of toys, no children's clothing, no CDs or DVDs, and certainly no pick'n'mix.

"The UK has many, many similarities in the retail environment [to Sweden]," says Mr Gregory. "The gap we saw was for a modern hardware brand in town centres and shopping centres, with a unique combination of products."

The product range is certainly unique. Most UK consumers would be hard pressed to know where to go for waterproof loudspeakers and would certainly not expect to find them alongside artists' easels. Then there is the question of whether the UK high street is the right place to sell winches.

Even retail experts find the Ohlson proposition hard to digest. "I was blown away by how many electrical lines they have," says Peter Bull, a retail specialist at PA Consulting Group. "I am sure they've done their research, but I find it hard to see how they will churn through that stock."

The Clas Ohlson store visited by The Independent on Sunday had several metres of shelf space devoted to various types of wires, and another given over to electrical switches.

Rather than compete on price, Ohlson could be looking to establish "range authority" over its competitors. "The way to encourage customers to come and browse, and to spend, can be with range authority, product knowledge, and the retail environment," explains Martin Carr, director of retail at Ernst & Young. "If price isn't your game, you might trade on range."

At Clas Ohlson, Mr Gregory agrees that range is key, but adds that service – each store has a help desk for technical questions – is also something that sets Clas Ohlson apart.

He also argues that the company's eclectic product range can work, appealing especially to male shoppers who might have time to kill. The Swedish media dubbed Clas Ohlson a kindergarten for adult males, says Esbjorn Lundevall, equity strategist at the Swedish bank SEB. "They are regarded as pretty good value, and somewhere, especially for men, that sells 'fun' articles, whether it is tools or computer accessories."

He adds that before Clas Ohlson became a common fixture on Scandinavian high streets, shoppers would drive to its Insjon store and camp in the car park. Whether British shoppers would go to such lengths must be in doubt. The lack of familiarity go some way to explain why, in its interim financial results released last week, Clas Ohlson admitted that its "conversion rate" is lower than in its Swedish outlets. And the company will face stiff competition from retailers such as B&Q, Tesco and Wilkinson, which are unlikely to allow a new entrant on to their patch without a fight. Then there is the question of whether a retail model that works well in Sweden will work here. "I think we [Swedish retailers] find a connection with UK consumers," says Mark Gregory. "They like the personality of the brand, and the Swedish twist. They find Swedish retailers pragmatic, and they like the cleanliness of the environment."

And pragmatism could work in Ohlson's favour, too. "There are two factors," says Hilary Aldridge from fund managers F&C. "Many of its products are resistant to online competition, partly because of the service element. And rents are low. If you can pick up what are quite prime sites, it is an opportunity for new formats to arrive on the market."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect