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."