Zara vs. H&M vs. Forever 21: Comparing Fast Fashion Retailers

Written by

Jason Feller
Zara vs. H&M vs. Forever 21: Comparing Fast Fashion Retailers

There was a time when retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle ruled the fashion roost. Those stores’ success has faded as “fast fashion” retailers began to offer consumers high-end designer styles at rock-bottom prices.

While some bemoan the popularity of fast fashion, it offers all buyers the opportunity to wear the cutting edge designs they love. Dealspotr took a look at reviews and articles from across the web to create a convenient comparison between three of fast fashion’s biggest players – Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.

Women’s, Men’s, and Children’s Clothing




The worldwide leader in not just fast fashion, but all fashion retail sales is Spanish-based Zara. According to Economic Times, this popular retailer embraces consumers’ fast-changing tastes, offering tens of thousands of new designs each year.

Despite running at a slightly higher price point than the competition, Zara offers a great value. writer Kat George notes Zara’s products last longer and look better than the competition after repeated wears. George also points out that Zara carries a wide spectrum of inexpensive polyester and nylon-based products.

Zara carries Women’s and Men’s clothing and accessories, plus they have a wide selection of Kid’s clothing.



Swedish retailer H&M lies at the other end of the price spectrum. As Fashion Spot writes, this fashion retail store is most well known for its stock of “chic but trendy runway-inspired pieces.” H&M is the second-largest fast fashion retailer in the world.

According to Fashion United, by collaborating with high fashion designers, H&M is able to set itself apart from its competitors. These high-profile partnerships go a long way towards expanding the brand’s awareness as well. Past collaborators include Lanvin, Versace, Maison Martin Margiela, Isabel Marant, and Stella McCartney.

H&M carries Men’s, Women’s, and Children’s clothing, and homewares for the kitchen, living room, and bedroom. H&M has expanded their offerings to include outside brands such as Monki, Cheap Monday, COS, and others.

Forever 21


Fashion United explains that American-based Forever 21’s biggest strength is the sheer amount of ever-shifting merchandise available at its stores across the globe. A player in the fast fashion game from its outset, Forever 21 has mastered the art of offering stylish and very low-cost clothing and accessories. It is unsurprising that the store is very popular with the teen fashion crowd.

Forever 21 has a men’s line, several women’s lines (including a plus-size range of clothing), and a girl’s collection. All of these lines include clothing, accessories, and footwear. Another trait that makes Forever 21 distinct is that it only offers a single, eponymous brand.

Advantage: Zara. While it has higher overall prices than Forever 21 and H&M, the quality of the materials and designs makes it easy to depart with the extra cash.



Ownership and Manufacturing Practices



Zara is owned and operated by Inditex, a publicly owned and traded corporation. The company has set the trend in fast fashion manufacturing.

According to Economic Times, the retailer built 14 factories in its home country of Spain where robots work around the clock to cut, dye, and assemble semi-finished products. These partially-completed items are then sent to one of 350 “finishing shops” in Portugal or Northwestern Spain.

A few years ago, Zara faced pressure from environmental groups to eliminate any hazardous chemicals in their products. In 2012, Greenpeace announced that Zara had committed itself to eliminating all hazardous chemical discharge from its suppliers and products by 2020.


Another publicly traded company, H&M keeps its 200-plus-strong design team at home in Sweden. However, production is outsourced to suppliers across Europe and Asia. Approximately two-thirds of its products are produced in Asia.

Because its labor is outsourced, it can be difficult for the company to maintain a high standard of labor quality. H&M has experienced a handful of controversies, though in the company’s defense the issues have been resolved quickly. In another sign of good-faith transparency, H&M produces a list of the factories they use; this is not a common practice for retailers.

Additionally, H&M has made it an aim to pay all of its textile workers a living wage by 2018 and backed that up with several pay increases in select countries.

Forever 21

Forever 21 is an American success story. Founded in 1984 as Fashion 21 by the South Korean husband-and-wife team of Do Won and Jin Sook Chang in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, the company has experienced explosive growth. From day one, Forever 21 has seen success and widespread expansion.

Still a privately owned business, Forever 21 has faced its fair share of controversies from a labor and copyright standpoint. The company has taken on lawsuits from former employees and is currently facing a lawsuit brought by several software developers, alleging piracy of design software like AutoCAD and Photoshop.

Advantage: H&M. While all three of these retailers have faced several controversies, H&M is the most transparent and quick-reacting.



Online and Brick-and-Mortar Shopping



Zara has locations all across the globe and an online store which serves 26 different markets. goes so far as to say Zara’s e-commerce site blows the competition out of the water. Its online store offers free shipping on orders over $50.

While the retailer’s full collection can be found online, Zara’s 2,000+ physical locations are also well stocked. Each location receives 2-6 new product deliveries per week, ensuring that it always has up-to-the-moment fashions.


For years, H&M solely relied upon its physical locations to generate profits. These days the company has gained even more market traction by launching a full-fledged e-commerce site that is available in nearly 60 countries. These countries are located all across the world in regions such as Asia Pacific, the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, and of course H&M’s home continent, Europe.

In addition to recently transitioning into a more modern business model with online retail, H&M was once exclusively available in European markets. With the booming global success of their fast fashion competitors, the company smartly began investing in foreign markets.

Today, H&M has 3,500 stores located in 57 countries across the world. This expansion was a smashing success, as 95 percent of the company’s total sales come from markets outside of Europe.

In addition to its standard chain of retail outlets, H&M has developed its own model of “above average” flagship stores, with 300 opening during the initial roll-out.

Forever 21

With just 610 locations, Forever 21 is a much smaller operation than its fast fashion competitors. Forever 21 has opened retail locations in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia/Oceana.

Locations are the result of Forever 21 integrating its online store and physical locations into flagship stores. These locations differ from the typical outlet because they offer all of its product collections as opposed to a rotating collection.

In addition to having fewer brick-and-mortar stores than the competition, Forever 21 also operates a small-scale online store. There are individual stores for the United States, China, South Korea, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Japan, and the European Union (which has language options for Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and German).

Like the industry-leading Zara, Forever 21 offers free shipping for online orders over $50.

Advantage: Tie. Each of these stores has a niche advantage; Zara dominates with the best e-commerce experience, H&M has the most widespread physical locations, and Forever 21 offers the “fastest” fashion in their retail locations.





By offering the masses the kinds of designs that were once only available to the wealthy, fast fashion is certainly a retail niche that is not going anywhere. Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 all offer fairly similar products that prove to be wildly popular across many demographics.

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This guide was published on September 18, 2015, and last modified on September 18, 2015.

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