Real HEMA on Kalverstraat

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Kalverstraat 170 is a stately merchant’s house from the second or third quarter of the seventeenth century. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century a renovation took place where the current facade was built. The property has an interesting architectural history, but is mainly connected with the history of a famous Dutch department store. On November 4, 1926 the initial establishment of HEMA was opened here.

The Hollandsche Eenheidsprijzen Maatschappij Amsterdam (H.E.M.A.) was established on November 4, 1926 by the Jewish directors Arthur Isaac and Leo Meyer of luxury department store De Bijenkorf. The first branch was opened on Kalverstraat. A few days later, a second branch followed in the Oude Hoogstraat 14-18. The strong international orientation of Leo Meyer, he had the idea for a unit price shop for people on a tight budget, which he had gained during a trip to America. Prices were initially not more than 25 and 50 cents; in 1928 were also more expensive products introduced of 75 and 100 cents, ‘the best quality that can be manufactured at such low prices’.

The first two stores did not fare as well as the founders expected. The shop in the chic Kalverstraat got little attention of shoppers, while the branch on Oude Hoogstraat had a to small floor space to handle the influx. The low conversion didn’t prevent the board to open many branches in the rest of the country at a rapid pace. When the Depression struck deeply the Dutch economy in 1929, the public flooded in and the realized large profits.

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Until the establishment of the HEMA stores in 1926 department stores were posh palaces for the richer part of the population. Stores like Hirsch & Cie., Maison de Bonneterie were fashion palaces for the elite. The well-off middle class did her shopping at Metz & Co., Gerzon Brothers and De Bijenkorf. HEMA was a store for everyone. HEMA gave the common people even its first coffee shop where the customers could eat a three-course meal for 50 cents. The staff consisted mainly of unmarried women, in white clothing, worked about 75 hours a week. Due to the low unit price shop H.E.M.A. was once seen as a ‘poor man’s shop’. Wealthier Dutch did not want to be seen on the street with a bag from HEMA. (How times change to nowadays!)

The Second World War left a significant scar in the history of HEMA. In July 1942 all Jewish employees had to be laid off and the board was pushed to the side. HEMA meant during the war years <em>’Helpt Elkaar Met Alles'</em> which translates in ‘Helps Each Other With Everything’. The dismissed Jewish workers were supported wherever possible but after the liberation there was not much left of the blazing HEMA of before the war. Many shops were in ruins or looted. 201 employees, including the management, were killed in the camps. They are commemorated every year on May 4 at the headquarters in Amsterdam-North..

After the liberation the management of the HEMA changed drastically: fixed low prices were no longer used, HEMA stood for the highest possible quality for as little money as possible. This proved a success and HEMA expanded at breakneck speed. In the 50s HEMA became the first franchise organization in the Netherlands. With approximately 150 ‘Affiliated Companies’ is HEMA still the largest franchisor in the country. Early 90s, the group opened its first stores in Belgium. Meanwhile HEMA is also based in Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and the United Kingdom. The shop on Kalverstraat changed places and is now underground in Kalvertoren, but it is still called branch number one.

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When you ask a Dutch person what he or she would miss most when he’s abroad, 8 out of ten would say HEMA’!

BTW this is a video of what to do with shoplifters…

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