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Shoppers will begin to notice something different about the new-season H&M garments they purchase over the next few weeks. Hang tags bearing the words, “You’ve asked, we’ve listened! We’re changing our sizing. Try on this item to find your size,” will appear on new inventory starting this week as part of a multilateral, multinational move by the company to shift its ladies’ sizing. Affecting the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, and Colombia, the move represents a colossal change for the Swedish apparel retailer currently ranked No. 2 worldwide (behind only Nike and superseding even Spanish fast-fashion powerhouse Zara).
The new hang tags are the first obvious clues shoppers will likely encounter, but they do little to indicate how much the recent sizing shift actually affects them, nor do they mitigate the complications that will inevitably come with it. The first phase of the change, which came in late 2017, went largely unnoticed. That’s when H&M shifted its XS–XXL sizing scale by one standard deviation — meaning if you wore a medium, you now wear a small — also adding XXS (reflecting the former measurements of XS) within Divided, a department that typically serves teens and younger customers.
The second phase, confirmed by an H&M spokesperson, is set to encompass shifts in numbered sizing, and would soon equate a former size 12 with a current size 10, and a size 10 with an 8.
An H&M spokesperson said that the sizing changes were easier to make in simple jersey garments first, adding that they represent a response to years of customer feedback and requests. A complaint from a UK customer in 2017 notoriously went viral, drawing negative attention to the brand’s tiny fits. And US customers have been equally vocal about their grievances.
“It is important for us to always listen to our customers, take their feedback and act in order to provide the best experience possible,” the spokesperson explained. “We knew from feedback that our sizing needed to be more in line with the North American consumer as well as be in line with the industry standard in the market.”
Observant online shoppers likely first noticed a shift in H&M sizing on April 30, 2018, which is when new numerical sizes launched on H&M’s e-commerce sites. Shoppers encountered new size options for items such as dresses, blouses, and pants; items in their carts automatically changed size, and their order histories were likewise revised.
Jean sizing categorized by waist measurement, shoe sizing, kids’ sizing, and men’s sizing have not been affected by the change. And although bra cup sizing remains intact, bra band sizing has shifted by one standard deviation to more accurately reflect actual measurements. (For example, if your chest measures 34 inches around and you previously took a size 36DD at H&M, you now take the more accurate size 34DD.)
The H&M spokesperson also said that while this size shift was long-planned, it launched prematurely on April 30 due to a “technical error,” which she says was quickly reversed.
However, some shoppers (such as me) found this not to be the case. On May 3, I noticed that a black midi skirt in my online shopping cart had automatically changed size. That morning, I phoned H&M customer service to confirm the change, ultimately opting to place an order for the skirt in one size smaller than my typical H&M size a full two weeks later, on May 17. The garment arrived a few days afterward featuring a label one size smaller than my typical H&M size, yet was clearly cut to the measurements of my former H&M size, just as the customer service representative had told me.
Vicki Alvarado, a merchandise planning expert in alliance with Columbus Consulting (whose clients include ASOS, AllSaints, Tory Burch, and Urban Outfitters), says that H&M’s new sizing standards reflect a commendable effort to establish consistency where it is largely lacking in American retail, noting that sizing for brands such as Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren can be inconsistent from season to season, or even piece to piece, depending on cut.
“This happens at almost every retailer I know. It is very common,” Alvarado explains. “Retailers will say that it’s because of the design, the silhouette, what the designer specifications are, what the product specifications are, that affords that size change, but it can be very frustrating never knowing your size.” And in a market where retailers struggle to recoup financial losses from routine markdowns, there are measurable benefits to making shoppers feel more welcome.
H&M sizing has remained more reliable than most — though, some would say, reliably small. H&M has been criticized for running smaller than most American brands and for being out of touch with the average American woman, who often felt alienated as a shopper. This is essentially the reverse of the “vanity sizing” controversy that has plagued American brands such as J.Crew in recent years, which received widespread backlash for the launch of its infamous size 000 in 2014.
Even after the April 30 sizing shift, H&M clothing continues to run smaller than that of most American brands. Despite more generous measurements, the retailer’s new size 2, for example, is sized similarly to a 0 in American brands such as Gap, American Eagle, and Loft, while its new size 0 is better equated to a size 00 at similar American retailers.
That’s right: H&M’s April 30 sizing updates added a size 0 offering for the first time. And though it’s technically no smaller than what we’ve seen at the retailer before — H&M’s new size 0 garments are cut to the measurements of its former size 2 — the change requires much more complicated logistics than simply sewing on new labels. So size 0 items will trickle into inventory slowly, with availability expected for 60 percent of new-season summer 2018 and Fall 2018 pieces by mid-August.
For women on the opposite end of the spectrum, the rolling changes include bonus benefits. By the end of August, “size 12 (formerly size 14) will be offered for most of our collection in store and we will have most products bought up to a size 18 for online. HM+ will start at size 12 and go to size 26 for the fall,” the H&M spokesperson said. Until then, it’s possible that shoppers will find garments cut to the same measurements but bearing different size labels, hanging on the same in-store racks.
In light of this, size-change training also begins this week and will allow customer service representatives, social media managers, and store associates to help customers make sense of the mixed inventory, accurately communicate changes, and help shoppers find the sizes that fit them best.
Later this fall, H&M will use its learnings from the summer 2018 and fall 2018 seasons to inform its purchase orders for 2019, with the potential for more expansive size offerings — and possibly even new size categories — considered for future. The result, H&M hopes, will be happier customers.
“We want to increase the trust the customer has in us to deliver on our promise of fashion and quality at the best price — in a sustainable way — and to look good and feel good in our clothes,” the spokesperson said.
The numerous upsides for H&M customers are apparent, which makes the fact that these changes have taken place sans size chart updates — for any of the affected countries — particularly perplexing. Size charts serve as especially important reference points for online shoppers who are unable to try on garments in person, and H&M’s most recent size chart updates were published more than two years ago, on May 3, 2016.
“Online customers, since they’re not trying on [garments], can make mistakes. Online, you have no idea what size you are, if the scale has changed,” Alvarado says. “New customers tend to look at size charts, but customers who have been buying from a brand for years will notice if their usual size does not fit.”
This could make the number of online returns in coming weeks enormous, especially since H&M’s spokesperson said that out-of-date size charts are not slated to be replaced until the week of June 25. Furthermore, official communications to customers about the recent size changes — in the form of a website banner, newsletter, and prompted smartphone app update — will not take place until the rolling change is closer to completion, around July 16.
All told, that’s a 57-day gap between the April 30 changes and size chart updates, as well as a 78-day gap between the April 30 changes and official communications about said changes to shoppers. So will the retailer relax its standard 30-day (with receipt) return policy in response to size confusion for uncertain numbers of affected customers? H&M’s spokesperson says no: “Our return policy remains the same, as we have people returning continually due to size, color, etc.”
The biggest takeaway? If you live in one of the six countries affected by this 2018 size-scale shift, don’t miss the return window by assuming your usual H&M size will fit. Try it on.