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Memo from Musgrave: Primark extends its universe to the USA

There is a poignant reminder of the frailty of fashion retailing at Primark’s impressive first American store in Boston, Mass.

At the main entrance to the 1912 Burnham Building, a beautifully preserved example of the Beaux Arts school of classic department store design, the motto on a large circular compass motif set into the original marble floor reads: “The hub of the universe. Filene’s Boston”. 

Filene’s became a Boston institution from 1912 when it was opened by brothers Edward and Lincoln Filene, who built up the business founded by their father. By the time it closed in 2006, it was part of Federated Stores Group, owner of Macy’s. A good-looking Macy’s stands right alongside Primark’s 292nd store in its 10th country.

In 1908 Edward Filene introduced a bargain department called Filene’s Basement to sell surplus merchandise from the main department store above. That spirit of discounting lives on in Primark’s other neighbours, which include factory outlets for Gap and US outerwear specialist Eddie Bauer, and a branch of TK Maxx. 

Observers have questioned whether Primark’s fixed-price policy will go down well with American consumers, who have been fed a diet of discounting for more than a century, it seems. While I doubt whether the Boston Downtown Crossing site will ever become the hub of the Dublin-based value retailer’s universe, it will be remembered, I believe, as the launchpad for a successful entry into the US market.

“Holy cow! They really are cheap!” was one excited comment I overheard outside the store on September 9, the day before it opened. It was uttered by a young man who was obviously from a rival retailer (you can always tell them by their careful examination of the window displays, the note-taking and the camera snapping away). His opinion seemed to be shared by the customers I spoke to over the three days I was in Boston. 

A bell boy in my hotel happily reeled off to me all the Primark stuff he’d acquired on the first day. “We had never heard of Primark in Boston but it’s just what this city needed,” he assured me.

Primark watchers in other countries should note the US store’s innovations, such as: a new staff uniform of turquoise-and-black T-shirt proclaiming “I ❤ Primark”; free Wi-Fi; seating areas (five in the footwear section alone), complete with mobile charging points; a men’s “recharging point” for bored partners of female shoppers; a reduction of sub-brands to two – Denim Company and Love to Lounge; uncovered windows (to comply with listed building rules); and customer toilets (which all its US stores will have).

Primark management almost added a coffee shop too, but decided they did not want to give up any more of the building’s 77,300 sq ft. However, these are likely to appear in some of the other seven stores to be opened across the northeastern states. They will also be added to more stores in the UK and Europe, as they have been proven to increase dwell time and, in consequence, customers’ spending. 

Back in the UK, the hub of our universe this week was our 25th anniversary lunch for the Drapers Independents Awards. See the image gallery for all our brilliant finalists and winners. Special congratulations from me go to our Lifetime Achievement Award winner, David Coe of Coes of Ipswich, who represents the finest principles of the indie sector. Well done to everyone involved.

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