Like Trader Joe's, H&M is one of those stores my friends always insist we visit while pounding the pavement in big cities. The fashion-forward but affordable retail giant from Sweden caters to women, men and children, and has American hipsters and club kids all a ga-ga. Credit the store's PR and social-networking savoir faire, coupon-friendliness and, most of all, its regularly low prices.
That all in mind, it's no wonder that the hype reached fever pitch before today's grand opening of H&M in Tampa on Nov. 10 at noon. More than 400 people formed a line outside the lower-level International Plaza store, heck even outside the mall, to be its first customers.
On arrival, around 9:45 a.m., the quiet of the pre-opening mall routine was interrupted at its center by the club-like thumping of DJ Casper's spins. He had a DJ booth setup inside the storefront across from Forever 21 (which may have felt more like 42 today).
Casper played some old-school hits that had the crowd singing along: "To Be Real" and "Rock With You" among them.
A throng of college-age kids all type and orientation waited at the front of the line. The sunny and charming Rick Moreno, 22, a pre-med/psychology USF student from Temple Terrace, was the very first. Unfortunately, he would not win a grand prize for arriving at 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening and his being forced to snuggle up to the cold linoleum of International's floor. His name was entered in a drawing of the first 150 customers, who would win gift cards that ranged from $10 to $300. Only one $300 prize was awarded. Moreno won a $75 card.
Moreno was not at all cranky or creaky after the long wait. "H&M is a reputable store with high fashion and affordable prices," he beamed cheerfully like a spokesman for the store.
Keeping Moreno company at the front was 35-year-old rocker Christianna Kennard, who was un-ironically trendy in a Motley Crue T-shirt. She got warm welcomes from Moreno and Ellysa Capizzi, 18, of Tampa, and HCC student Kimberly Hall, 21, of Brandon, at the front of the line.
UT student Fedora Belizaire, 18, around 10 people behind, arrived at 4 a.m. "I'm here for the gift cards," the business major said in a pleasant but matter-of-fact tone.
After greeting the young, sleepy-looking kids in line, a mass of black-T-shirted employees swarmed the entrance, clapping and engaging the crowd in a call-and-response that could only be described as "occupy gay club." A particularly flamboyant employee named Kyler Dukes strutted the front like Ru Paul, popping out with a cherry-red wig and leading the H&M staff in a jubilant performance of the "Cha-Cha Slide."
The employees of the new store numbered around 40, and like the crowd outside beamed like a shiny template of diversity. PR rep Tony Everett, who flew down from the corporate offices in New York, allowed the press to get a sneak peek inside. The employees, called "sales advisers," were all well-spoken and accommodating — except for one out-of-place blond middle-aged frump who snootily refused me restroom privileges after another member of the press was permitted. (Note to said personnel: Another employee did allow me to use the employee restroom, thank you very much, and might I add, you would be more suited for Fashion Barn than H&M).
Store manager Rick Smith got the employees pumped at the center of the store like a coach in the locker room; not nearly as gruff but with just as much heart.
After the crowd flooded in post-noon ribbon-cutting, TV camera guys and talking heads ran amok, and mobs of shoppers combed through the racks. That all said, H&M handled the rush with minimal stress and thorough efficiency.
I think only one customer snapped at me: "I wasn't cutting you in front of you!" I wasn't even in line at the time.
Most of the comments were favorable but less than enthusiastic. The consensus was that it was great to have a fashionable and affordable store like H&M in the area, but the choices were a little on the bland side. H&M was great for staples like sweaters, long-sleeve shirts and leggings. Some trendy shoes and accessories were available, but they had that uncomfortable-mall-store look to them. The kids section was appropriately cute and colorful, and the men's side a nice balance of Banana Republic and hip New York boutique.
Splashy Versace items were all well and good, but the stars of the show were the sales. A sweet black-hooded weather-resistant down coat could be purchased for $20 (retail: $79). Just in time for the cold front.
And thanks to Jen for pointing out the cat-print mini-dress. It wasn't on sale but adorably unique and well worth the $24.95.