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Has the value backlash already started?

So Primark has officially been crowned the king of value clothing by researcher Verdict, which predicts that the chain is about to overtake George at Asda as number one in the sector with an 18.4% market share. Value retail as a whole is now worth £8.3 billion a year and accounts for a quarter of the total clothing market.
Anyone familiar with Primark, which must be pretty much everyone, won’t be surprised at this news. Its mix of fast-moving fashion, quality shopfits and small-change prices has proved to be particularly potent. And it scores further points over numbers two and three on the list (George and Tesco respectively) for its prime high street locations, which are hugely attractive to younger shoppers who are unlikely to travel to an out-of-the-way supermarket to buy their clothes.

Like it or loathe it, Primark’s story has been extraordinary, particularly when you consider that it doesn’t even advertise. It relies on word of mouth, press coverage and its impressive store fronts to do its marketing for it – a strategy that has proved incredibly effective and one that has helped keep its costs down and prices low. One newspaper report I read this week said Primark doesn’t play music in its stores, so it doesn’t need to pay licence fees.

All of this reminds me of that other great Irish success story, Ryanair – which, like Primark, is loved and loathed in equal measure. As Ryanair did with air travel (no reserved seat, no complimentary tea or coffee, surcharges for luggage), so Primark has stripped retail back to basics to offer the cheapest possible price.

But curiously, it’s that cheapest possible price that seems to be putting some people off. Anecdotal evidence suggests shoppers are beginning to get suspicious that there’s something not quite right about a coat that costs £15 or a T-shirt that costs less than your bus fare to the store.

Primark has not been immune to the scrutiny of the media, which has embarked on a campaign to “out” unethical manufacturing practices among UK high street retailers. But the chain is part of the Ethical Trading Initiative and has long-standing relationships with most of its factories. There is nothing to suggest that Primark should be any worse than any of its competitors when it comes to such matters and of course it isn’t just Primark that offers these cheap-as-chips prices.

Some independents that have spoken to Drapers lately tell us a trickle of customers are drifting back to their stores looking to invest slightly more in their clothes, so they feel more comfortable about the provenance, quality and durability of the items they are buying. It is a slowly turning tide and not everyone will turn with it, but any evidence that shoppers are supporting the country’s independent retailers should be welcomed and celebrated.

All we need now, as Hilary Cookson points out in Talking Shop on page 16, is for the consumer media to get behind and promote independent retailers, just as it did the value players. Then we may see that tide start toturn a little bit more convincingly.

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