The world’s biggest Primark opens in Birmingham this morning and it is chock-full of novelty. John Ryan reports.
To judge by the next raft of store openings from Primark there must be something about the letter ‘B’. Brussels, Bordeaux and Belfast are amongst the next tranche of shops to open, but it is its latest opening - Birmingham - that will get all the attention.
Opening this morning the store in what, in a previous life, was The Pavilions shopping centre is 160,000 sq ft, making it the biggest Primark to date. And given the scale of this one - five floors, catering on each level and esoteric delights that include a Primark Disney café, a Harry Potter store and barber and beauty shops - it is hard not to assign the ‘department store’ label to what is on view.
Paul Marchant, chief executive, is wary about categorising the store as such and he has a point. This may be department store-sized, but the prices, across the board, are distinctly unlike what would be expected from the genre.
Yet Primark Birmingham does tick many department store boxes. From the outside this is an imposing structure. It has two entrances, one facing Moor Street station (which will be a stopping point for HS2 when, and if, it finally comes to fruition) and the other dominating the High Street (a city-centre pedestrianised thoroughfare), making the store a cut-through for incoming commuters.
Both sides of the store are about wire mesh, which Sanjay Dhiman, director of design, says is about paying tribute to Birmingham’s industrial heritage. He points to an inflated part of the High Street frontage, which is “one of the country’s largest ETFE installations: essentially a large plastic bubble”.
Hoodies and haircuts
An imposing building therefore and one that does not disappoint when entering via either entrance. The main entrance, until HS2 at least, will be from the High Street and stepping through the doors, the first thing that the shopper will see is the ‘Joe Mills Primark barber’.
Joe Mills, operated until this morning in Soho (and continues to do so), but now there is a Birmingham outpost.
It’s fair to say that there is a difference between London’s Brewer Street and Birmingham, in terms of ambience and disposable income. Nevertheless, no expense has been spared in fitting this one out and the interior of this quasi-discrete shop-in-shop (it has its own doors) is as good as anything that will be encountered in the capital, the only difference being that it is cheaper.
Those having a haircut can also have a coffee. Marchant is enthusiastic and points to Primark’s current strapline – ‘Find Your Amazing’: “Amazing haircuts. Joe fits into our philosophy of making people look and feel good,” he says.
Beyond the barber lies the store proper (this is level -2 as the High Street is at a lower level than the Moor Street entrance) and the visitor’s gaze will be grabbed by the atrium with its large mood images and Primark aqua blue neon signage where once more ‘amazing’ is to the fore: “Find Your Amazing”, “Hello Brum” and “Amazing Fashion, Amazing Prices”.
Men’s fashion is all around and Dhiman points out that the various groups of mannequins, put into the middle of things to provide visual interest are positioned on remodelled plinths. Head up to level -1, ‘The Mezz’, and there is a café and restaurant.
Both Dhiman and Marchant are keen to observe that, given the size of the store, there is room to breathe and this area, in particular, feels spacious.
Graphics are everywhere, courtesy of consultancy Dalziel + Pow, all extolling the virtues of Birmingham as a destination – ‘The Country’s Most Diverse City’ – and when coupled with the use of neon department signage and a generally vibrant colour package, the overall feel is upbeat.
Another floor up and as well as women’s fashion, there is a 3,000 sq ft Duck & Dry beauty department.
Like the barbershop, this has its origins in London and hot and candy pink form the colour scheme for a shop-in-shop that can seat up to 50 beauty-seekers at a time.
A fitting room with a difference
With each of the major floors being around 40,000 sq ft, according to Dhiman, there is a lot to look at and on level 1 there is a Primarket, for gadgets and small gifts, which comes with its own display equipment for the first time, and a Primarket Café, where you can create your own doughnut.
There is also a t-shirt printing “lab” where those wishing to personalise a Star Wars or Disney garment, for example, can have this effected while they wait.
At this point, a small mention should be made of the fitting rooms, which have been completely remodelled for this store.
Thanks to a digital control at the entrance, there is now no limit to the number of items that can be taken into a cubicle and each room has been given a distinctive wall treatment.
It is the “Show & Share” room, with a louvred mirrored door that is the real eyecatcher however. This is a large, separate room with several cubicles in it and a communal space.
The idea is that parties can try things on, while comparing and commenting. All good, but the difference is in the fact that the mood lighting can be changed by the shopper and if music is required it can be Bluetooth-ed from a shopper’s phone to the Show & Share speakers: hen party alert.
A Disney wonderland in store
The top floor is likely to be the area that generates the most noise. This is the home of a dedicated Disney store, a ‘Primark Café with Disney’- where Disney games can be played on screens embedded into the tables - and a Harry Potter shop.
The Primark Café with Disney is actually very hard to ignore as a large light-box with a red background features Minnie and Mickey at the top of the escalator.
This is the work of a triumvirate consisting of Disney, consultancy Brinkworth (which has worked on all of the store’s catering areas) and the in-house design team and in terms of doing things differently, it is a world away from the Primark norm, albeit recognisably from the same stable.
It also affords customers fine views out over Moor Street station.
Dhiman relates that when Primark got rid of The Pavilions and built the new Primark, “3,000 tonnes of concrete were taken out and 1,000 tonnes of steel were put in”. A mammoth undertaking and one that involved the complete razing of the existing structure before work could begin.
But will it work and is Birmingham ready for a store that is four times the size of the Primark, which until it closed last night, had served the city since 2002? Marchant is positive: “We think we’ve got ambitious, but very achievable sales numbers. We’re our own sternest critics and from a completeness point of view I don’t think we’d do anything differently.”
He says that this doesn’t mean that things won’t change, however, and equally that many of the new elements that have gone into the Birmingham store will find their way into other branches across the estate.
The Primark juggernaut continues its seemingly unstoppable progress.
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