There were 423 people waiting outside the new, long-awaited H&M store on King Street when it opened at noon Thursday.

Two hours earlier, the line stretched from the door, around the block, down Wentworth Street and west to St. Philip Street.

Jessica Smith of James Island was at the front. She arrived at 4:30 a.m. and said it was worth it because she ended up getting a $300 gift card. She also was let inside to shop about 10 minutes ahead of everyone else.

"Part of the reason I was willing to get up so early is I hate Black Friday," Smith said. "This was a more controlled situation, and I knew they were giving away gift cards worth a lot of money."

H&M handed out scratch-off gift cards with various amounts from $10 to $300 to the first 300 customers in the lengthy queue.

The store also hired Good Food Catering to pass out drinks and refreshments, including crab cakes, to the crowds all morning.

Some of the people in line fell asleep against buildings as they waited. Others said they were too excited to sit down.

"I'm super excited to get in. I feel like I've been waiting since the announcement that they were coming," said Rebecca Barnhart of Charleston, who joined the line at about 9:30 a.m.

The Swedish retailer announced in May that it would open a Charleston store in the historic Kress building at 281 King St. Specializing in affordable apparel for men, women and children, H&M has about 3,000 stores worldwide, with nearly 300 in the U.S.

When the ribbon was cut at noon Thursday at H&M's first South Carolina location, shoppers of all ages filled the 21,000-square-foot store.

Shelby Droze of Goose Creek was one of the first people inside once the store opened. She had never shopped at H&M before, but she decided to get in line at 9:30 a.m. after her friends raved about the Swedish retailer's expansive collection of affordable fashions.

She said the store's opening in Charleston reflected a growing demand for youthful apparel.

"I think it says a lot about the youth that's here in Charleston - what their style is, what they're interested in. It's definitely becoming a more hipster, liberal culture," she said.

Another H&M store is planned for North Charleston's Tanger Outlet Center. That 20,000-square-foot store should be open in fall 2014, according to the company.

The expansion in Charleston reflects H&M's effort to grow a stronger presence in the Southeast.

"The South is a big focus for U.S. expansion, and we look forward to continued growth in 2014," said Daniel Kulle, president of H&M in the United States.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.