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Fast fashion chains rule the US retail space right now, so it’s no surprise that Primark wants to join the fray. For every story on Kate Spade’s downsizing and Prada’s profit problems, there’s an equally mind boggling report on H&M’s plans to open 400 stores across the globe. Primark will only stiffen the competition.
The company was founded in Ireland in 1969, but really started making a name for itself about a decade ago when it proved that it could pull in huge profits regardless of the struggling global economy. In 2011, the Telegraph charted Primark's meteoric rise and subsequent nickname, "Primarni," born out of the retailer’s ability to churn out runway copycats at dirt cheap prices.
"For shoppers that are after clothes they can afford to ruin (or for their children to ruin), or trend-led items they know will be wear-once wonders, Primark fits the bill," Katherine Rushton wrote for the Telegraph. "After all, we are a nation of shoppers, and in a downturn we are more eager to trim our budgets than curtail the habit altogether."
The prices are hard to believe: $4 flatform sandals, $5 bikini sets, and $6 rompers fill the brand’s latest lookbook. Everything featured on the seemingly endless scroll of new products on Primark’s site is priced below $20, and that includes bedding and home decor.
"I spend a lot of time in Primark and I think most people think its just a cheap apparel store," Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, tells Racked. "It’s actually a lot more than that. They have a thriving accessories business, and on top of that they’ve got a home business. They’ve got duvets, sheets, towels, bedding—you name it. They’re a lot more than just cheap apparel."
"If you go in there on any given Saturday or Sunday, there are 70 people in line. You can’t move in the store."
Not only is Primark up against other fast fashion players like Forever 21 and H&M, but also big-box retailers with mid-priced home offerings, like JCPenney and Kohl’s. Zara and H&M recently launched home goods in the US, which, combined with Primark’s imminent US entry, could spell trouble for traditional home retailers. "They have some very strong offerings in home decor that are incredibly cheap," Widlitz says. "You walk around Europe and you look at fast fashion apparel that’s very mature in Europe and it’s just starting to come to the States and then you throw in Primark—we have a problem in the US."
Primark will debut in Boston with a 70,000 square-foot store slated to open in September of this year. "We wanted to be in a cosmopolitan environment and Boston is a cosmopolitan and international city," Jose Luis Martinez de Larramendi, Primark US president, told the Boston Globe. "The building itself will be a mark for Primark and the city." George Weston, CEO of Primark’s parent company Associated British Foods, noted that Boston is a good starting point because of the city’s Irish population, which would be familiar with the brand’s roots, and the high concentration of college students, a key Primark demographic.
Once the Boston flagship has been established, Primark plans to roll out up to 10 more stores in the following year. All will be clustered in the Northeast, and seven will operate out of leased Sears stores. According to a Sears press release detailing the agreement, Primark will lease approximately 520,000 gross square feet of retail real estate in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
From a branding perspective, it seems like a risk for Primark to link up with such a troubled retailer when introducing itself to American shoppers. On the other hand, it was probably a smart financial move. "[Primark's] not beholden to these long-term leases," Widlitz explains. "They can probably pretty much name their price in terms of what they want to pay to fill these stores that are really losing money."
One of the secrets of Primark's success is its reliance on brick-and-mortar retail. Amazingly, the company has built and sustained a thriving fast fashion model without any e-commerce presence.
Primark couldn’t reconcile its rock-bottom prices with the costs of doing business online.
There was a short period in 2013 when Primark sold a 20-piece collection on ASOS as a way to test the waters in online shopping, but the initiative was shut down within 12 weeks. It failed not for lack of consumer interest—according to Vogue UK, there were plans to double the collection within a week due to "phenomenal" demand—but because Primark couldn’t reconcile its rock-bottom prices with the costs of doing business online.
"As you can imagine, the margins are so small that it can be difficult to sell a £3 t-shirt when you’re spending the same amount just to ship it," Weston told the Independent at the time. "The shipping costs for an online business is the key reason why online-only retailers can’t compete with us."
Primark’s commitment to selling ultra-cheap everything has attracted a fair share of controversy over the years. In 2008, the BBC aired an award-winning documentary supposedly showing children being used to manufacture Primark clothing, but, after a three-year investigation, Primark proved that the footage had been faked and the BBC was forced to stop airing the documentary. Alexa Chung was supposed to star in "The Devil Wears Primark," a documentary exposing the working conditions at the retailer’s supply factories, but, according to the Guardian, the show never aired.
In 2010, Primark banned sandblasting due to potential health risks connected to the practice. In 2013, Primark banned all products that contained angora due to animal welfare concerns. Following the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in May 2013, Primark gave about $2 million for food and wage support for some 3,600 victims involved in the tragedy. There’s an entire section on the brand's website dedicated to answering questions like "Are workers making Primark clothing paid a fair wage?" and "Does Primark use child labour?" Needless to say, the retailer is incredibly committed to making sure its customers don’t feel like they’re giving up moral ground by shopping at Primark.
Judging by sales, the approach is working. Primark posted a 30% profit increase and opened 1.2 million square feet of selling space in 2014. It successfully entered France last year with five locations, all top performers.
"If you go in there on any given Saturday or Sunday, there are 70 people in line," Widlitz says. "You can’t move in the store. I went to the brand new store that opened recently in Berlin, same thing. The traffic in there, the lines in there, the excitement in there is incredible. And you walk into a regular full-price apparel retailer and it’s dead."