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Can Primark, Europe's Cheapest Fast-Fashion Export, Kill the Competition?

The Irish chain hits Boston with $10 jeans and $2 tees.

I arrived at Primark, the newest fast fashion competitor to hit the US, at 8:37am, just under three hours before the doors were slated to open. "I'd start queuing up now!" an enthusiastic employee told a passerby asking for details. We dubiously eyed the 10-person-long line. Deciding to take my chances, I backtracked past the dozen or so gates set up for the nonexistent early morning throng to pick up some coffee at the Pret A Manger across the street. Ten minutes later, I fell in line behind the same handful of Primark shoppers.

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An older Boston native, standing in front of me, asked if I knew that this used to be the old Filene's department store. "My first visit to Santa happened inside here," she told me. The building had been vacant for the past eight years, until Primark decided to scoop it up. The company hopes that Boston will be the first success of many in the US — a store at the King of Prussia mall outside Philadelphia opens in November and seven more are slated to take over leased Sears locations across the northeast region next year. Unfortunately, there's no plans for an e-commerce launch, as Primark's prices are too low to support the additional costs of operating online.

We all tentatively began to ask one another, in the most polite way possible, what the hell we were doing lining up so early for the European equivalent of Forever 21. The only man in line explained that his wife worked with Primark's distribution center; he was there for moral support. Two women had trekked up from New York City, where they owned a clothing manufacturing business. The other couple of people were local students — one of Primark's key demographics. We all settled in for the wait.


Image: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

At around 10 am, chocolate chip cookies were brought out to the waiting crowd, which by now had swelled to around 50 to 100 people. Comically large collapsible shopping bags were passed out; I had to fold mine between my knees to keep from thwacking the people around me. Who would need one of these, I thought, and then I noticed one of the clothing manufacturers ahead of me had already unfolded hers and expertly attached it to her own shopping cart she had brought for the occasion. This was not her first Primark rodeo. "Have you heard of Topshop?" she told me by way of explaining the store. "Primark [in London] would have the same stuff within a week, and it was 70% less expensive."

Boston's mayor, Marty Walsh, was due to speak right before the doors opened. At about 10:55, two TVs that had been playing Primark commercials on loop for the past two hours flickered to a livestream showing Walsh's face, projected from inside the store, where he was delivering his speech. Half-hearted clapping ensued. "Are ya wearing Primark, Marty?" a woman behind me yelled. (Doubtful.) Mercifully, the speech lasted all of five minutes before the security guards reached for the ropes.

Surprisingly, the walk in was completely calm — no Black Friday-esque stampede. Instead, the doors opened into a sea of bright blue Primark balloons and dozens of employees standing on either side of the walkway, cheering and clapping as we stepped over the threshold. Photographers and videographers were huddled at the end of the tunnel of employees, flashing cameras in our faces. We'd achieved minor celebrity status for seven seconds, before being dumped out onto the sales floor. Oh right, back to those $10 skinny jeans.

Image: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The store spans four floors, encompassing 77,000 total square feet of retail space. But, unlike walking into a cavernous, chaotic Forever 21, the clean organization of the floors makes it easier to shop without falling into overwhelming exhaustion at the options. The sheer quantity of product was almost as impressive as the prices; for example, the women's coats took up an entire third of the first floor and covered basically every coat trend you could ask for (fur? parka? peacoat? trenchcoat? Canada Goose knockoff?). It was a challenge to find anything above $50.

On the second floor, shoes upon shoes (wide fit included) lined one section, while off to the left, an entire length of the floor was dedicated to trendy backpacks. None of the bags I looked at were over $20; most were priced at $12 to $18. To be sure, no one could advocate for the quality of a $12 leather-ish tote, but that's not the point. As The Economist describes it, Primark is a disposable clothing store. Sure, that $14 Lululemon lookalike workout hoodie probably isn't going to last you past a season of actual workouts. Just come back and buy more.

Nearly everyone had one of the oversized shopping bags that I had laughed about earlier slung over their arms, and plenty were sagging under the weight of their contents. The fitting rooms have a try-on limit of eight items, but attendants were hoisting the gigantic bags onto metal racks that corresponded with the shopper's fitting room number and switching out items as people tried them on. A long line of checkout cashiers was located conveniently close to the exit of the fitting rooms.


Images: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Outside, it had started to rain but that wasn't deterring a four-piece band going to town right at the exit. Back at the front of the store, a line had begun to form. It snaked right past a line of labor union picketers who had started a small, circular march to protest Primark's unwillingness to meet and discuss organizing its workers. Successful shoppers streamed by, barely glancing at the march, carrying their hauls in Primark brown paper bags. In the Pret across the street, a four-person team of shoppers had stopped to eat lunch and review their purchases. One woman stood up in the booth, trying to fit the near-dozen Primark bags spilling out onto the floor into her camera's frame.

Primark's retail neighbors include Gap Factory, TJ Maxx, and H&M, all of which looked woefully under-stocked and under-shopped after an hour-long, dazed ramble up and down the many levels of Primark. All of the merchandise in Gap Factory's women section could barely have filled Primark's shoe section. Red sale signs were hanging over nearly every item on Gap Factory's floor, but even at 60% off, those $59.99 jeans no longer looked like a steal. Tank tops advertised at $19.99 apiece suddenly seemed wildly expensive compared to the $6 neon printed ones I'd just held across the street.

In H&M, a DJ was stationed near the front door, gamely performing for the 10 or so people wandering around the single floor. A stack of H&M shopping bags, small compared to Primark's netted buckets, lay unused against the wall. Weirdly, the H&M employees were all outfitted in "H&M♡Boston" t-shirts, while Primark employees had been handing out "Primark♡Boston" tote bags just around the corner. A sales associate assured me that they had gotten their Boston t-shirts at least two months ago.


Image: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

A similar story was unfolding inside Forever 21, where the Herculean task of sifting through the overstuffed racks seemed just a little more impossible today. And, once again, Primark was undercutting the competition on price. Statistically speaking, Bernstein Research analysts estimated for the Financial Times that, on average, Primark's prices were 40% below H&M, 33% below Old Navy, and 20% below Forever 21.

Back inside Primark, the crowds were thickening. Even though the opening never reached terrifying levels of hysteria, there were still lots of people streaming into the store at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon. It was hard to move without hearing someone gasp over a price tag they had just flipped over. "This is way cheaper than TJ Maxx," one shopper told another in the home goods section's 90¢ candle aisle.

Halfway down the escalators between the second and third floor, I recognized the H&M employee from earlier headed upwards, no longer wearing her "H&M♡Boston" shirt. "Hey!" I wheeled around, following her up, hoping that she recognized me. "What do you think?"

"It's cheaper," she admitted, sifting through a rack of $7 wall hangings. "But the quality is not as good. H&M is better. I wish them good luck, I guess. We'll see how it goes."

I had an informal poll going to gauge the general reaction among shoppers but, besides the skeptical H&M employee, I couldn't find a person who was disappointed with the experience. "My eye! Do you see my eye?" Magnolia, a 55-year-old Boston resident, leaned over to me, pointing at an alarmingly red left eye. Not even an infection could keep her away from shopping Primark on opening day, she says. "I came by last night and saw the prices in the window! The prices are beautiful!"

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