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Hema arrives in Britain: A trip to the shop will soon mean going Dutch

The store that's big in Holland looks set to give UK retail a boost – and challenge Ikea

Prepare for the phrase "going Dutch" to mean something altogether different from this week when Hema, a Dutch value retailer with a flair for design, opens its first UK outlet, with plans for plenty more over the coming months.

Hema's arrival will pose a challenge to the Scandinavian stalwart Ikea and newcomer Tiger of Denmark because the Dutch store offers customers similar bargains and easy-on-the-eye designs.

The group, which has more than 660 outlets across Europe, will open its first UK store on Thursday in London's Victoria, with two more to follow soon in Bromley and Kingston. A website will launch next month as a precursor to opening more stores across the UK.

The advance of these posh Poundlands, to borrow the nickname bestowed upon Tiger, illustrates just how much shoppers have changed habits during the recession, a phenomenon that has hit established retailers such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer hard.

Analysts believe Hema could replace Woolworths, which disappeared from UK high streets at the start of 2009. Patrick O'Brien, at the Verdict retail consultancy, said the group "marries discount and value retailing with an Ikea design aesthetic... it's the kind of retailer Woolworths could have been if it had been invested in properly".

Hema itself claims that it aims to make people's lives more fun, by selling the likes of pink frying pans, which are designed in-house. It's certainly popular in the Netherlands where one in five women wear one of its bras, and one in three boys pull on a pair of Hema pants.

Straightforward Hema style

But before potential shoppers get their knickers in a twist over the thought of yet more disposable bargains, Hema pledges to sell sustainable products and is extending its "Naturally Hema" brand. Goodies on its shelves span customised cakes to children's bicycles.

The company was started in the early 1920s by two Jewish entrepreneurs, Arthur Isaac and Leo Meyer, who wanted to offer struggling shoppers some cheaper alternatives. The first store opened on Amsterdam's Kalverstraat in 1926. Today, the group is private-equity backed: Lion Capital acquired the company, which generated sales of ¤1.2bn in 2012, from Dutch retail group Maxeda in 2007. As well as the Netherlands, it has outlets in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Hema aims to make everything about shopping in one of its stores simple, splitting its departments up into Eat, Study and Beauty rooms. Its prices are all in round figures, so £5 instead of £4.99.

And, with more than 43,000 shops now lying empty in the UK, Hema will have its pick of high- street sites when it rolls out stores beyond London.

Mr O'Brien predicted it would do well in the UK where, he said, "discount general retailing has been very successful"; the likes of Poundland, Home Bargains and the family-owned Wilkinsons are all thriving. But he stressed that the sector is becoming more crowded. "They're going up against all the major grocers as well, but I don't think the grocers will lose too much sleep [over Hema's arrival]."