The Rise of Primark

Since humble beginnings in Dublin, the chain now boasts over 300 stores in 10 countries and 62,000 employees.

On April 14th 2016 Primark will open its first store in Italy. The store is in Arese some 12km from fashion hotspot Milan, in a former Alfa Romeo factory now transformed into one of the largest shopping centres in Italy. Following the success of its first store in the USA, opened in Boston in September 2015, there are plans for a further six in the USA this year.

Primark’s latest opening just outside Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, the latest in the company’s 301 stores in Europe. Pictured above is the Primark store in Madrid, Spain.

Primark’s latest opening just outside Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, the latest in the company’s 301 stores in Europe. Pictured above is the Primark store in Madrid, Spain.

Primark started in Ireland in 1969 where it traded as Penneys – but it is known as Primark all over Europe. Its aim is to provide affordable fashion right across the continent. With seven times more employees though and more than 7.4 million followers on social media, it far outpaces the aviation company. In the mid-1970s it had 17 stores but now has over 300 in 10 countries, 62,000 employees and annual profits in 2014 of €808 million.

Penneys offered ‘pile-them-high, sell-them-cheap’ clothes at rock-bottom prices. Penneys became particularly well known during the 1980s and ’90s by bargain hunters. When it opened its first UK store in 1974 it was forced to change its name to Primark because the US company JC Penney had trademarked the name in the UK. Its big breakthrough, however, came in 2005 when Primark bought 42 Littlewoods high street stores in the UK in a deal worth £409 million.

The opening of its flagship store on Oxford Street in 2007 made headlines. Three thousand people – many of whom had queued from early in the morning – caused a stampede and a number were injured.

The first move outside the UK and Ireland took place 10 years ago with the opening of a store in Spain on the outskirts of Madrid. Since then, it has expanded into Germany and the Netherlands (2008), Portugal and Belgium (2009) Austria (2012) and France (2013).

In April 2013, the human cost of high-volume, low-margin retailing came into sharp focus when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing more than a thousand people and shedding light on the conditions of factory workers in that country’s $20 billion garment industry.

Since opening its first Penneys store on Dublin’s Mary Street in 1969 with the aim of selling clothes at rock-bottom prices, the chain’s fashion credibility has expanded with more adventurous forays into high fashion at low prices.

Since opening its first Penneys store on Dublin’s Mary Street in 1969 with the aim of selling clothes at rock-bottom prices, the chain’s fashion credibility has expanded with more adventurous forays into high fashion at low prices.

To date Primark has paid $14m in aid and compensation and has conducted more than 2,000 factory audits in the past two years. It has been estimated, however, that doubling the minimum wage in Bangladesh currently $68 a month would only add 10 to 12 cents to the cost of making a basic T-shirt.

Expansion continues along the populous (55m) north eastern corridor of the US from Massachusetts to Philadelphia with a distribution depot in Pennsylvania. So far its success has been attributed to targeting shoppers who are ‘European’ in their fashion outlook, no mean achievement given that UK retailers like Marks & Spencer, WH Smith, Sainsburys and Tesco have all come unstuck in the US. The growth in store size and the expansion of the product offering go hand in hand. Primark’s fashion follows trends, but is primarily casual with a large offering of basic staples like T-shirts, jeans, socks, shirts etc.

Critics argue that fast fashion like that of Primark contributes to environmental waste and pollution. There is a growing concern about the impact of disposable fashion on the planet. Primark is currently conducting recycling trials with drop-off points in a handful of stores.

If Britain were to leave the EU (Brexit) any curtailment of the free movement of goods in Europe or introduction of extra tariffs would certainly increase costs. Out of 301 stores in Europe, 168 are in the UK representing more than 32,000 employees. There are now seven stores in France and in Spain turnover has hit €1.7 billion. In the meantime, Italy is the last bit of central Europe to be conquered.

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