New York: Fast-fashion mainstays Forever 21, H & M and Zara will soon be facing fresh competition from a retailer famous for $3.50 (Dh12) T-shirts, $10 jeans and $5 ballet flats.
Primark — which was founded in Ireland and is owned by a British company — plans to make the leap across the pond in September. As it opens its first store in Boston on September 10 and then fans out with seven more outposts across the northeast, Primark will serve as something of test of whether shoppers’ appetites for wear-it-today, trash-it-tomorrow clothing is anywhere near satiated.
Primark is sometimes described as the overseas answer to Forever 21: Its stores quickly sell through high volumes of merchandise, meaning the sales floor is continually updated with new clothes. And its hyper-efficient supply chain quickly cranks out of-the-moment pieces. In the UK, this has earned it the nickname “Primarni”, a mash-up of Primark and Armani.
Primark has been one of the lone bright spots lately in a subdued British apparel market, Rob Gregory, global research director for London-based consultancy Planet Retail, said. In the most recent quarter, its sales were up an eye-popping 12 per cent.
“Traditionally, there’s been a bit of a stigma [on] buying cheap clothes,” Gregory said. “But over the past five years, to go to Primark and buy a cheap dress or shirt is actually sort of a badge of honour.”
In some ways, it seems like an apt moment for Primark to arrive on US shores: Consumers remain intensely value-conscious, and teenage shoppers have nearly dealt death blows to once-formidable retailers, including Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale, which haven’t adapted quickly to trends that bubble up on Instagram and street-style blogs.
Classic investment in vogue?
And yet some retailers and experts have begun to question whether shoppers will soon flock back to classic investment pieces. (The success of Everlane, purveyor of long-lasting basics, could be a sign of such a pendulum shift). Plus, many note, the fast-fashion market is already quite crowded.
“It’s really a saturated environment,” said Tiffany Hogan, a London-based apparel analyst for Kantar Retail.
And Primark is making an unusual bet in its move into the US market. The retailer has opted not to have an e-commerce site, as it thinks its low-margin, high-volume sales model is not well-suited for that channel.
“This is not a profitable avenue for us,” said John Bason, the chief financial officer of Associated British Foods, the company that owns Primark.
Today, Primark has 287 stores across the UK, Ireland and several countries in continental Europe. The retailer is beginning its foray into the US with stores in the northeast, based on its belief that tastes in that region will be most similar to those of its European customers.
“Many retailers have found that coming from Europe to the northeast has been a much easier leap to make,” Hogan said.
In addition to the store in Boston, Primark plans to soon come to locations including Staten Island, New York and at the sprawling, upscale shopping mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
Location, location, location
“We deliberately located these first stores in locations where there’s a high footfall already, because we are aware that the consumer awareness of Primark is low,” Bason said.
One of Primark’s key challenges will be differentiating itself not only from fellow fast-fashion operators but also from other value-focused apparel retailers such as Target, Old Navy and T.J. Maxx. Bason hopes that the vibe of the stores will help with that. He’s promising that Primark’s US outposts will be bright, vibrant and “not a miserable experience, like some other value retailers.”
Bason also adds that Primark’s goal isn’t necessarily to make customers abandon their current value-priced favourites.
“I think that our customers don’t mono-brand shop,” Bason said. “They’re looking for a repertoire, of which we want Primark to be one of those stores.”
Primark found spaces for its stores in the US in an unusual way: It is leasing parts of existing Sears stores. They will be stand-alone stores with separate entrances and branding. Bason said these deals were attractive to Primark because it allowed the retailer access to spaces of more than 70,000 square feet, a large footprint that otherwise may have been hard to nab in a US shopping centre.
Sears, meanwhile, has said the deals allow it to use otherwise unproductive real estate to generate income.
Associated British Foods is an international conglomerate that includes one of the world’s largest sugar producers, an agricultural supplier and grocery store brands such as Ovaltine. The Primark name is used in the UK and at its stores throughout Europe, but its stores in Ireland are branded as Penneys.