Last week Primark opened its second store in Belgium, one with a much higher profile than the first owing to its location in Brussels.
To judge by the crowds, to the parlour game ‘famous Belgians’ a new name can now be added: Primark.
The fledgling store is 18,000 sq ft, much smaller than would normally be expected of a new Primark.
It is in fact less than half the size of the first Belgian Primark, in the city of Liège, which is more than 40,000 sq ft and is to be extended to 63,000 sq ft by the middle of 2015. The Brussels store is therefore an exercise in getting considerably more than a quart into a skinny-looking pint pot.
Primark’s chief executive Paul Marchant says that ideally “we would have liked a 40,000 sq ft or 50,000 sq ft store here but this was what was available”.
The store is therefore in the centre of Brussels’ mass-market retail district and as Marchant comments: “If you can’t make a profit here…”
Formerly the site was a Forever 21, but following a fire in 2012 it closed and did not reopen, in line with the US value retailer’s European retrenchment that has seen substantial amounts of downsizing.
Stand outside the new Primark, however, and any sense of impermanence is immediately banished. On opening day a queue formed at just after 8am and by the time the doors opened at 11am the line stretched far away down the street.
And for those waiting patiently the store’s external appearance was one of the more compelling on this long thoroughfare.
The upper portion of the glass frontage features a map with the names of major European cities in which Primark trades picked out using blue neon signs that are suspended in front. It is quite similar to maps that have been installed in other large branches, but there is more of an international emphasis here.
Beneath, a narrow black strip provides a home for the store logo and under that there are two windows. They feature, among other things, pegboards that Peter Franks, Primark’s director of store development, says are used as a way of combining an industrial feel with a design studio ambience – appropriate for a fashion retailer.
Inside, what is immediately apparent is that this interior has been pared back and pared back and then pared back some more.
The shop is narrow and would probably work as a bowling alley, except that it has a kink about halfway along its length. The pillars have been taken back to the raw concrete and the brick walls on the left-hand side of the shop have been exposed.
What really takes the eye is the central walkway. This runs the length of the shop from front to back and makes in-store navigation very straightforward. It also means that all of the merchandise areas are organised in zones that run either side of the walkway with freestanding mid-shop walls used to create “rooms”, as Marchant refers to them.
He says that this interior is about getting more stock into a smaller area without compromising shopper comfort or ability to move.
Because this is a smaller Primark than other branches, decisions have been taken about what should be included.
Practically, that means homewares and kids’ clothing are not stocked. That said, there is little sense of absence and there is a lot to look at in terms both of layout and the manner in which the signage and moving shoppers through the space have been dealt with.
As this is a predominantly linear layout, areas such as the denim shop and men’s and womenswear have been placed opposite each other on either side of the walkway, something that is not usually possible in larger stores where the genders tend to occupy different floors.
Then there is the signage itself. Primark has done much to lead the way when it comes to using digital screens, but in Brussels this has been largely dispensed with.
Instead, moving images are projected onto mid-shop pillars and around the perimeter in an effort to promote a “more analogue” feel, according to Franks. Marchant comments: “I actually like this. When a screen isn’t working you see a blank screen. With a projector, you just turn it off and you don’t notice anything.”
There are also light-box signs that wrap around pillars and graffiti-style notes on mirrors and around the perimeter, aimed at creating the sense of a rough-and-ready boutique environment.
Primark has worked with design consultancy Dalziel + Pow on this interior, as it has on most of its other stores in recent years. And it is a measure of the importance that is attached to in-store visual communication that D+P has a separate arm that deals with that as well as with things digital.
It is a quasi-industrial store interior and one that looks set to divert a considerable amount of the price-conscious clothing spend in the Belgian capital.
Note should also be made of the back-of-house areas in this shop. The staff restaurant is bright, clean and features coloured pendant lightshades and free wi-fi as well as, inevitably, a food vending machine that has waffles as part of its selection.
Mirrors are positioned beyond the restaurant at the top of the staircase where staff head down to the shop, the idea being that they should look their best before making an appearance in the shop.
Each Primark that opens is different from its predecessor and as Marchant remarks: “You always see something that you could have done better. You learn every day.”
Two more stores are planned for Belgium next year, in Hasselt and Ghent, in May and July respectively.
Primark continues to make massive strides internationally and there will inevitably come a point when it makes more money overseas than it does in its home markets of the UK and Ireland. Marchant says that eventuality remains some way off, and a raft of new stores and store extensions are planned for the UK in particular during 2015.
For the moment at least, this is one juggernaut that keeps thundering ahead and now Belgium has more to offer than chips, chocolate and Tintin.