Primark’s American invasion is under way and the retailer’s in-store design and competitive pricing looks set to make its mark on Boston.
Boston has not always reacted well to foreign invasions, something attested to by the scores of historic sites scattered across the city. Among these monuments, museums and mausoleums there now sits an intruder of a different sort: Primark has arrived in the US, with Downtown Crossing in Boston being its first port of call.
If the crowds were anything to go by, Primark’s reception was a more welcome one than those of previous interlopers. The signs of its arrival, however, were just as palpable.
Outside the 70,000 sq ft store, barriers had been erected to manage queues – or lines as Americans like to call them; a couple of burly bouncers looked ready to pounce at the first sign of disorder. Primark branded bottles of water were given out to customers entering the store, presumably in recognition of the fact that they might well be spending some time in there.
It’s hard for those that know Primark well to fully understand what someone completely new to the concept might think or feel about the shop, and its proposition. However, even for accustomed eyes, the store is an impressive one.
In-store digital offer
A lofty ground floor (that’s first floor in American parlance) feels spacious and creates a sense of significance, mostly thanks to the fact Primark has used the full height of walls to merchandise and display its wares.
There’s plenty of digital signage with a large screen towards the back of the store running a constant loop of video detailing the latest fashion stories and trends.
Digital is a theme that runs throughout the shop. Free wi-fi is available, while signs encourage shoppers to share their product buys and fashion ideas via social media. And if all of that tweeting and Instagram posting leaves phone batteries depleted, there’s a charging station area where customers can pause for a moment to recharge themselves and their devices.
Of course, the missing piece of the digital puzzle is a link to online shopping. Like elsewhere in the world, Primark isn’t offering this in the US, and nor is it likely to do so.
Shoppers impressed with price
The store itself – which is a breath of fresh air compared with the 1970s looking Macy’s that is opposite, and the dull-as-dishwater Gap Outlet that sits to one side – was not the main source of excitement. This honour belongs to the price points.
Americans, who are used to bargains and discounts, appeared to be genuinely impressed. The most frequent phrase that rang thorough the store was “oh my god, it’s like only five [or whatever] dollars”. The low prices had the desired impact – in typical Primark fashion shoppers filled their shopping bags to the brim with product.
Primark’s price position is indeed impressive. Although direct price comparisons are hard to make on clothing, Primark is trading some 36% below the average of other retailers that sit within its competitive set.
Indeed, it is telling that a pair of men’s jeans offered with 60% off at the nearby Gap Outlet was still more expensive than Primark’s mid-price range.
It is also notable that, relatively, prices are cheaper than in the UK – although this has much to do with the fact that in Massachusetts there is no sales tax on clothing items priced at $175 (£113) or below.
There are similar policies in all of the states Primark is poised to expand into: they either have no sales tax on clothing at all, or exempt clothing items below a certain price. It is interesting that after currency conversion Primark has not simply made products 16.7% cheaper – the amount they would be reduced by if the 20% UK VAT was stripped away.
As such, it will benefit from some modest margin gains – something that will be extremely useful as it builds economies of scale.
Price is not the only advantage Primark has; the other comes from the weakness of its competitors. The American clothing market is cutthroat and it has been for years. However, after lengthy battles and extensive changes in the way American’s shop, many incumbent retailers are suffering.
The teen players Abercrombie, Aeropostale and American Eagle are all injured from sliding shares and sales; meanwhile, there is a big question mark over the future of American Apparel.
With the exception of its Old Navy band, Gap is struggling on as it retrenches. And, the traditional department players – Macy’s, JC Penney, and Sears – look tired and underinvested.
Ultimately, the success and failure of retailers is never determined by their first day’s trade; it is decided by all the subsequent days of trading once the excitement and razzmatazz of the initial opening has subsided.
Yesterday, Primark was the busiest store in the whole of Boston with shoppers grasping its brown paper bags diffusing out across the city. That is something it now needs to make the established norm. However, with none of its products thrown into Boston Harbor, it is safe to say that Primark is off to a pretty good start with its American invasion.
- Neil Saunders is managing director of Conlumino