Although so many of the big British names – think Tesco Plc and Marks & Spencer Group Plc – have failed to break into America, I’m more confident than ever that Associated British Foods Plc’s Primark will succeed. The United States is currently the best-performing part of the Primark universe, and after six years of gradual expansion, the company is set to dramatically change its number of US stores.
Primark is unlike any other chain in the United States. She amassed fans for her inexpensive but durable children’s clothing, beauty products and home furnishings. Its prices are comparable to those in the UK, with oversized t-shirts costing around $10, jeans around $20 and flip flops around $1.
Probably the closest comparison to Primark is Target Corp., especially when it comes to the basics. Indeed, at its new small-format store on 42nd Street in New York City, Target had similar T-shirts for $10. But “Tarzhay” is best known for its collaborations with designers, which allow it to charge higher prices. For example, the company’s most recent tie-up is with Stoney Clover Lane, famous for its colorful accessories. (Pastel nylon bag for $30 instead of $300, anyone?)
There’s also teen fashion chain Forever 21, though it prefers higher prices punctuated with promotions. Then there are discount or “off-price” stores, including TJX Cos Inc. and its Marshalls division, but they carry a handful of designer brands and can be more expensive.
The two Primark stores I visited in March were quite distinct. The Kings Plaza Brooklyn location, which opened in 2018, covers approximately 58,000 square feet and is spread over three floors. In addition to basics, such as children’s clothing and sleepwear, there was a large selection of fashion items, such as trendy pink two-piece sets. The American Dream boutique, which opened in October 2020, has a smaller footprint at around 42,000 square feet. It carried more basics and had the same brightly lit industrial store vibe as the new UK Primarks.
What is clear from both stores is that Primark has owner buy-in. With department stores gone, mall owners need new footholds to increase footfall. Amid soaring demand for luxury, it could be a Louis Vuitton boutique, or it could be a Primark.
It’s not all that simple, however. As so many retailers have discovered, even though Brits and Americans speak the same language, their fashion tastes are very different.
For example, despite the cold winter temperatures, Americans generally don’t like thick flannel pajamas. With air conditioning and heating keeping the bedrooms comfortable all year round, they prefer lighter cotton bedding sets. Sales of comfortable and warm pajamas are greater in Europe.
What is working well, however, is Primark’s licensing business, including a tie-up with the National Basketball Association. Los Angeles Lakers sweatshirts and Chicago Bulls hoodies and sweatpants were prominently displayed near the Kings Plaza store entrance.
Although Kings Plaza was packed, with queues snaking around checkouts at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, Primark has reduced the footprint of some of its old stores to improve profitability. Its first US flagship, at Downtown Crossing in Boston, is among those that have been reduced. The third Primark store in New York, Staten Island, which I visited five years ago, remained at around 55,000 square feet.
US shoppers are also being pressured by inflation, although Primark should benefit from those looking to lower prices. A recent Bank of America report, based on debit and credit card data, found that low-income consumers reduced their spending on clothing in the first two weeks of March, when prices at the pumps in gasoline peaked, although their spending has since recovered.
Primark will face higher costs, for example in cotton and energy, while respecting its commitment not to raise prices. Value matters to its customers. He also risks being caught in other crosshairs, from the rise of Shein Group Inc., which is making fashion even faster, to heightened environmental awareness, which could see young people shy away from more disposable clothes.
But Primark is moving forward. The US outperformed Primark stores in the UK and mainland Europe in the six months to early March. And it is preparing to expand its US presence from 13 stores currently to 60 within five years. “We’re on takeoff now,” John Bason, ABF’s chief financial officer, told me.
Shoppers will soon see locations on Jamaica Avenue in Queens (coming this summer), Crossgates Mall in Albany and Roosevelt Field in Long Island (opening before Christmas) and Fulton Street in Brooklyn (expected to debut around the end of the year ).
During my six-week stay in the United States, I was repeatedly asked the same three questions: where was I from? Where did I buy my denim jumpsuit? And, when I said it was from Primark, where was that store? Next time I visit, I predict I’ll hear that third one a little less often.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail sectors. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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