BOSTON – It’s not quite the dollar store, though with $2.50 beanies and $7 skinny jeans, Primark comes close.
This story first appeared in the September 14, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Look at this. This is incredible value,” said Paul Marchant, chief executive officer of Primark, as he tugged on a $1.60 stretch camisole, during a tour of the retailer’s store here, its first to open in the U.S. “We’re not making a fortune on it but we’re on the right side of the line. Nothing here is a loss leader.”
Moving farther into the intimate women’s offerings, Marchant said, “We’re very strong in nightwear and loungewear.” Lace vests, priced at $3.50, and lounge shorts, priced the same, are “incredible values,” Marchant said.
“Be reassured, we make money on everything.”
In activewear, which he calls sportswear as might a European merchant, Marchant stopped at the sports bras displayed together in an area showcasing a coordinated active story across bottoms, tops, jackets, shorts and footwear, which seems most appropriate considering Boston is a runners’ town. “This is a great deal at $4.50 – there are a variety of colors.”
He highlighted the bras to underscore Primark’s multitude of low-priced key items merchandised in-depth to drive volume, like the bouclé sweaters, rib cable-knit sweaters and “popcorn” sweaters grouped together and priced $16. “These folded table displays are typically big volume lines,” Marchant observed.
The four-level, 77,000-square-foot Primark store — the first in the U.S. for the Ireland-based company — opened Thursday at 11 a.m. in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, on the corner of Washington and Summer Streets, opposite Macy’s Inc. Executives from Macy’s were also touring the store, an indication of the degree of curiosity that Primark has aroused in the U.S. as potentially a formidable competitor, particularly in the value sector.
Primark has landed on the site of the original Filene’s flagship built in 1910. Seven other stores are set to open in the U.S. through 2016, with the next being in King of Prussia, Pa., in late November.
At the start of the tour on the flagship’s main floor, the bespectacled Marchant – who was accompanied by Peter Franks, director of brand and store development – said the Boston store is representative of what will be seen at the other Primark locations, though he pointed out the local touches, like the laser-cut metal mural depicting Boston landmarks, by British illustrator Luke Embden, as one of the ways the company seeks to resonate with the community. Nods to Boston and Filene’s are evident through the floors as a gesture to a defunct but not forgotten retail nameplate and to evoke city pride. The executives noted that Primark restored much of the Daniel Burnham-designed building, including the exposed brickwork and terra-cotta ceilings. “Each of our stores has the same look and feel.
However, every store will be unique in that they play into local references,” Marchant said.
A kind of reverse sticker shock permeates the store, considering prices are generally below those of other fast-fashion retailers, like Old Navy and Forever 21. Primark’s sharp fashion-value proposition and high-octane visual presentation to some degree evokes elements of Wal-Mart, H&M and Topshop.
Marchant dresses the part. As he entered the men’s wear area, he was wearing a top-of-the-line Primark wool suit, with an attached pocket square that can be tucked in, out of view. With suits, Marchant explained, “We have a lead-in price point, which is $45, $70 is the core and $150 is the exit,” meaning the most expensive.
Price is critical to the brand message, as is delivering fast fashion geared for customers under age 35. The 1,000-square-foot “trend” shop, right at the main floor entrance, has everything priced for less than $50, including $14 stretch knit sweater dresses, $35 cropped suede vests with fringe, $16 biker jackets, and wool evening coats with faux fur for $46.
Still, the store doesn’t scream price all over, unlike other retailers that routinely broadcast percent offs or “bogos,” which typically stand for buy one and get another item at a discount. Primark is judicious in placing price signs, and they’re primarily to flag the important key-item volume drivers. Rather than play the high-low pricing game, Primark takes an everyday low pricing approach, which America’s sales and coupon-oriented consumers will have to adjust to.
“We don’t do big sales but we have markdowns,” to clear out merchandise, Marchant explained. “We want the product to be the heroes, though we do want to emphasize value. We got a good chunk of merchandise priced under $10.” That’s very evident across several categories, particularly accessories, hosiery, underwear and jewelry.
Overall, the store seems weighted toward women’s wear and children’s, although it also carries men’s and home goods. The home area offers 200 thread count full-size sheets for $24, memory foam pillows for $12, Navajo print duvet sets for $21 and 90-cent candles, among other items.
It’s a high-energy store with lots of overhead spotlighting and neon signs in Primark’s signature aqua blue to identify categories. Steel structural columns are 20 feet apart, making it easy to get around and see across the floor. Each column has a mirror and there is plenty of backlit fashion photography. With 530 mannequins, many placed high atop platforms, and walls merchandised with outfits most of the way up to the ceiling, there is more than sufficient inducement to look up and browse. With its open floor plan, “you can see back to the walls where we have lots of high-level merchandising. The high ceilings have really helped,” observed Franks. “Sight lines are very important,” to draw customers through the space.
On the service front, Franks said there are 73 cash registers and 84 fitting rooms, and personnel designated to guide customers and expedite transactions. “There’s very little down time for available registers, and the fitting rooms are managed by walkers.”
The store also has WiFi enabled “chill zones” for employees, and similarly for customers, seating areas with charging stations and television monitors to take a break from the shopping.
Asked how he felt about Primark’s U.S. entry, Marchant replied: “With any new market, there is a level of anxiety about the unknown, but we’re not nervous. We’re confident.”
Other retailers, he suggested, might be concerned. “We’ve heard from our supplier base that competitors have been anxiously awaiting our arrival.”