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Fashion chains expand online operations

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Fashion chains H&M and Zara are set to unveil online stores by next month, hoping to jerk the increasingly dispirited trend on the high street.

Zara, owned by Spanish company Inditex, will launch its website simultaneously in the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal on 2 September 2010. Zara already sells a home range online and after the re-vamp will offer its fashion lines, which till now have only been available in its stores.

H&M`s online venture will go live a fortnight later with apparel for women, men and children, along with its new range of homeware, including bed linen.

Several retailers have warned that consumer confidence is waning as people worry about their jobs amid talk of savage cuts in public sector spending and employment, which is having a knock-on effect on the private sector. Next said last week that consumer spending wallet size is slowing down and is likely to be further constrained in the coming months as the UK government`s austerity measures take hold and next year`s rise in VAT keeps shoppers away from the high street.

Marks & Spencer`s new Chief Executive, Marc Bolland, meanwhile, warned recently that the coalition government`s emergency budget was likely to hit consumer spending.

Online fashion sales, however, are proving remarkably lively. At Next, for instance, while first-half sales at stores open for at least a year fell 1.5%, its Next Directory home shopping business saw sales rise 7.8% from 7.2% earlier in the year.

Zara and H&M are two more in a long line of fashion stores that have moved into the online retail market. The majority of high-street shops already have online presence, including frontrunners Topshop and New Look.

Online market leader Asos, recently announced that strong sales of maxi-dresses and festival wear helped first-quarter sales rise by 54%.

Zara first opened its doors to the British public in 1998 and is known for its speed in delivering catwalk styles to high-street consumers. The company made a small profit in the year to the end of January 2010, after recording a loss of £20m in the previous year.

Swedish owned H&M, meanwhile, is the world`s third-largest clothing retailer with an extensive network of outlets across the UK. Its collaborations with notable designers in recent years have been sell-out successes, including its diffusion lines with Karl Lagerfeld and Matthew Williamson, along with its 2007 swimwear collection with Kylie Minogue.

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