It’s never been easier for U.S. consumers to nab deals at Primark, the Irish multinational retailer owned by Associated British Foods.
“Primark’s mission in expanding within the U.S. is to enable people to look good and feel good every day at prices that are affordable to as many as possible,” said Kevin Tulip, Primark U.S. president.
Among the affordable feel-good pieces are $22 distressed mom jeans, men’s denim joggers for $28 and $13 girls’ paperbag waist jeans.
Part of Primark’s assortment of “everyday essentials” and trend products, denim takes up an average of 10 percent of selling space across men’s, women’s and children, Tulip said. Jeans, jackets, skirts and more are merchandised in a dedicated denim shop-in-shop in each store and are incorporated into trend assortments across departments throughout the season.
“Our bestsellers vary as certain cuts come in and out of style—but at present, we are seeing the cargo style has been wildly popular, followed by the staple skinny jean, which has remained a bestseller through many trends over the years. We’ve also seen a real interest in our ripped styles,” he said.
Denim plays a large role in Primark Cares, the company’s effort to offer more sustainable choices at prices everyone can afford, so consumers don’t feel priced out. Under the strategy, Primark has committed to make clothes that will last longer, are designed to be recycled, and are made from recycled fibers or more sustainably sourced materials.
Tulip noted that 45 percent of Primark clothing is already made from recycled or more sustainably sourced materials, and the company is committed to make that 100 percent of clothing by 2030. The company is halving its carbon footprint across the value chain by 2030, eliminating non-clothing waste and single-use plastics by 2027 and restoring biodiversity through its Sustainable Cotton Program, which will train farmers to use more regenerative agriculture practices by 2030.
In July 2021, Primark joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign initiative that promotes circular manufacturing. The Jeans Redesign collection featured jeans and denim jackets for adults and kids made of organic cotton and recycled fibers. The garments were free of rivets and labeling to streamline the recycling process.
“Building on our work in this area, we have a new circular product lead at Primark,” he said. “And we’ve begun training our designers, buyers, and key suppliers on circular design principles so these products can begin to show up in stores for our customers.”
The company is communicating these sustainable wins to consumers through “bite sized” information that they can learn more about by using in-store QR codes. However, Tulip said one challenge every retailer is grappling with is how to talk about sustainability in a way that’s understandable but avoids the pitfalls of greenwashing.
Though Primark’s environmental and ethical teams are held to a high standard to ensure all information is factual, transparent, and externally accredited where possible, the company has not done a great job of communicating these efforts to consumers, he said.
“It’s an ongoing effort and we have just gotten started,” Tulip said. “We also think it’s really important that we work with recognized and trusted partners. It’s never a good idea to mark your own homework, and we are as much as possible, collaborating with expert partners and NGOs.”
Primark’s first U.S. store opened in 2015 in downtown Boston. Though the fast-fashion chain’s growth story in the U.S. may seem sudden, Tulip said the company was “quite conservative” with its U.S. expansion in the early years.
“We have deliberately taken our time and taken a test and learn approach because we wanted to get it right,” Tulip said. “Our initial footprint of stores has shown us that there is a real need in the U.S. for affordable fashion and everyday essentials at the price we offer. We now have a model that works, and we are ramping up our expansion plan.”
It now operates in seven states with 16 stores in Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and a Virginia store opening soon. It’s aiming for to 60 U.S. stores across by 2026.
“We are always exploring new regions in the U.S.,” Tulip said. “Our strategy has been to go to locations with heavy footfall, which is why we’ve expanded so quickly in densely populated areas like New York.”
The Big Apple has become a hotbed for expansion. In 2017, Primark opened its first New York metro location in Staten Island. A second store opened in 2018 at Brooklyn’s Kings Plaza Mall, followed by a third store in 2020 at the American Dream mall in East Rutherford, N.J. The retailer has since added stores in downtown Brooklyn, Garden City and Queens.
This month, Primark announced it will open a second store in Queens—a 54,562-square-foot multi-level space at Queens Center mall in Elmhurst.
Space is a critical piece of Primark’s winning formula. Tulip said the average U.S. Primark store covers about 35,000-40,000 square feet of retail selling space.
What occupies that space varies—but just slightly. Primark has a single global range of products across women’s, men’s, children’s wear, home, beauty and accessories, meaning shoppers in the U.S. will find the same products that are offered across the 15 countries where the company operates.
Store size, however, determines how much of that range will land on the selling floor. In Europe, where Primark has some of its largest stores, consumers will find greater variety.
Getting to know the U.S.
Approximately half of Primark’s stock is in basics that “people wear over and over,” from socks and T-shirts to everyday sweats. This is one of the reasons why Tulip said the retailer does not fit the traditional fast-fashion mold. “The very term can insinuate a certain level of quality both in the product, but also in the standards right throughout its supply chain, neither of which I believe applies to Primark,” he said.
“Across all stores, we pride ourselves in carrying a fantastic range of basics at an affordable price for anyone in the family, any time of year. We want to meet our customers where they are to ensure we’re offering the best possible products for their needs,” he added.
Each store can tailor a percentage of its product mix to its clientele. “This gives our store managers the autonomy to use their knowledge of their local shopper to deliver the exact product they want,” Tulip said.
For example, in Sawgrass Mills, Fla., Primark sees an “extremely high demand” for its licensed Disney range. It has higher mix of these licensed products in that store versus the global average, which allows that team to meet demand for affordable Disney products, he said.
That demand for character-driven apparel is among the U.S. audience’s quirks unique. “As a market we’ve seen a huge demand for our license products (i.e., Disney, Netflix, NBA and NFL) and our children’s wear department has been growing in popularity over the years,” Tulip said.
Shopping is also more of a family affair in the U.S. Tulip said the company has noticed that a lot of families come to its U.S. stores and shop together. Primark’s something for everyone approach has been well-received by U.S. families.
They’re walking out of stores with more, too. In Primark’s European markets, a large portion of shoppers live in urban areas and shop on high streets, while in the U.S. Primark is predominantly serving mall shoppers. “This means they visit less frequently but when they do they tend to buy more items in one visit,” Tulip said.
“Primark’s combination of quality and value is a unique proposition in the U.S. You don’t see our prices for the quality of product we provide in this market. We have competitors that do one or the other, but what we’ve heard from our customers is that no one else is giving the American shopper both value and quality the way we are for men, women, and kids,” he said.
One space Primark has no plans for is the online channel. Tulip said the traditional model of putting the full range online for a home delivery doesn’t work for Primark’s business.
“A few years ago, everyone was talking about the death of physical retail, yet nearly half (43 percent) of consumers recently surveyed by PwC chose shopping in-store as the most popular channel, followed by via phone and PC,” Tulip said. “What we are seeing in our stores is a real consumer appetite for retailers that deliver an elevated in-store shopping experience that drives foot traffic and inspires commerce.”
However, the retailer does have plans to launch a new U.S. website this year that will allow consumers to see which items are in stock in their local Primark store.
“We see a lot of retailers trying to be everything to everyone and ultimately falling short. It’s challenging to stay focused when there are pressures to be everywhere, to deploy every innovation, and to reach customers at every touchpoint—but those who don’t focus and differentiate themselves end up falling into the middle ground,” Tulip said. “This is a risky place to be, especially in a tough consumer spending environment.”