Primark goes west

In announcing plans to expand to the US, Irish fast fashion retailer Primark is following a route well worn by competitors in Europe, with mixed results for many

 
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A man wears a Primark suit. The retail giant has announced intentions to expand its operations in the US - many question whether it can conquer the fashion market there

Author: Tom Bailey

22 Sep 2015

Primark is one of Europe’s most powerful fast fashion companies. In the past decade its stores, stocked with clothing at knockdown prices, have popped up all over Europe. Its popularity is on display to any who dare enter its packed UK flagship store at the Marble Arch end of London’s Oxford Street, with long lines for the tills and changing rooms throughout. The Irish retailer is now set to join a host of similar European retailers in entering the US market, with plans to open its first stateside store in Boston later this year, to be followed by 10 more shops across the country in the near future.

This is a well-trodden path for a European clothing company, with competitors H&M, Zara and Topshop all having previously made the jump. Unlike food businesses like Tesco and Marks & Spencer, fast fashion companies have generally avoided complete flops in their forays into the US, but the level of success has varied.

Primark is generally considered less trend-conscious than Zara and Topshop, and slightly less so than H&M

Rocky road
In Europe, fashion tends to start in metropolitan areas, then infiltrate outwards into smaller towns, creating a fairly uniform fashion market. In contrast, the US market is more diverse; the tastes of coastal city dwellers may never reach even large interior cities in the US, while the sheer size of the country and resulting climactic diversity can make a winter collection problematic to curate and advertise. Heavy winter coats that are popular in Chicago or New York would be redundant in Los Angeles.

According to Carla Frith, Course Leader in Fashion Buying and Brand Promotion at Ravensbourne College, the diversity and complexity of the US market has made it “challenging for European fashion brands to create an impact”.

Speaking to European CEO, Caletha Crawford, a lecturer at the Parsons School of Design, said: “The challenge that European companies often face when entering the US is that this is a large and varied market. It takes a lot of capital to have a real presence here. And there’s a steep learning curve in terms of understanding the different regions of the country, their specific needs and tastes, and the ideal locations for flagships. The big challenge for European brands has been tailoring communication strategies and the realisation of budget requirements to drive consumer engagement with their brands.”

For instance, while British fashion retailer Topshop has maintained a profitable presence stateside since its launch in 2009, its success has been short of what was predicted. The retailer has over 70 concession stands in larger shopping outlets, yet has only opened seven stores, short of its predicted 12-15. Frith, who has worked as a buyer and buying manager at Topshop, observed that “Topshop has positioned itself at a higher price level [in the US] than in Europe”. One of the main issues with this, she said, has been “a misalignment with its pricing strategy in comparison to brand image and product portfolio”.

H&M, in comparison, has successfully carved out its position in the American market, opening 370 stores across the country since 2000, with 51 of these opening in 2014 alone. Indeed, the Swedish fashion giant saw its US revenue soar by 26 percent in the same year. As opposed to Topshop, “H&M have managed to evolve their strategies for the American market and now speak to the consumers they are targeting”, Frith observed.

Notably, H&M stores have managed to survive alongside US fast fashion staples like Aeropostale and Forever 21 across the country. At the same time, the company has been able to appeal to fashion-forward audiences in major US cities, through the strategic placement of its flagship store at the centre of New York, as well as by appealing to a wide customer base with designer collaborations.

Coast to coast
In general, European fashion companies have ensured success by focusing on metropolitan areas, primarily on the coasts, which are considered more fashion-forward and open to European trends. As Skylar Bergl, News Editor at fashion magazine Fourpins, said: “The US is a huge country with quite a few big cities. But only a few of those cities really pay attention to fashion, and they’re located on the coasts for the most part.” He continued: “All of these brands do better on the East Coast, I would imagine. I’m not necessarily sure you could ask a regular person in, say, Colorado or Kansas about Topshop. But I may be wrong.”

Zara in particular, often considered the most trendsetting of all fast fashion chains, has clustered its success within coastal cities. The brand relies upon prime real estate locations, placing its stores near more expensive competitors. This is, according to Crawford, a policy with a certain philosophy behind it: “Zara has said it’s found that people who live in big cities typically are more similar to one another in terms of taste – no matter where they are in the world.”

Standing out from the crowd
Primark is generally considered less trend-conscious than Zara and Topshop, and slightly less so than H&M. Its key selling point has been incredibly low prices for moderately fashionable clothing. Primark, then, is less likely to attract the fashion-forward crowds that have made brands such as Zara and H&M so popular. However, considering the company’s decision to launch in Boston, a city not known for its style credentials, this may not be its target demographic anyway.

Much of what Primark sells would be considered ‘basics’, something US customers already have in abundance, whether it’s cheap, fashion-free apparel from Target, or already-established foreign competitors that specialise in cheap basics such as H&M and Uniqlo. Moderately fashionable basics for rock-bottom prices will not give Primark a unique selling point in an already-saturated US market. According to Crawford, Primark will need to find a way to stand out. Fast fashion is no longer a new concept in the US, she noted, and “it’s been a long time since a chain has been able to drive excitement with basics”.

Primark’s European origins, however, may yet give it an edge over US discount clothing counterparts. As Bergl pointed out: “It sounds a bit juvenile, but Americans romanticise Europe a lot, and it manifests itself possibly the most heavily in our fashion sense.”