New Look and Primark have turned the far west end of Oxford Street into a Mecca for bargain hunters, but depending on which retailer you visit, the value shopping experience can vary widely
The extreme western end of Oxford Street was, for a long time, the less glamorous part of central London’s principal high street. But then New Look decided the time was right to set up store and bring a little pizzazz to the area. That was in the early years of the last decade, and followed the disappearance of department store Allders from that end of Oxford Street.
Primark joined the club in 2007 with a two-floor behemoth that’s had shoppers seemingly baying for opening time ever since. So after being a retail backwater, this part of Oxford Street is now value central, and shoppers pile out of the Tube in a way that can only have been dreamt of when the building that now houses Primark was a C&A (until 2000).
The question, however, is whether these two versions of the value store represent a homogenous front in terms of in-store experience. And the truth is that they could hardly be more different, in spite of being aimed, in large measure, at the same shopper.
Key looks and merchandise mix
The point about both stores is that you are in the market for a cut-price bargain. On the day of visiting, both were on Sale and the summer clearance was in full swing. However, while the ground floor in Primark, home to womenswear, had reductions, these were only on a few selected rails, with printed cotton shorts, for example, creating a stir by being even cheaper than the already very low normal price.
By contrast, in New Look, it was hard to miss the reduced stock as there appeared to be little else. Rails of the stuff greeted the shopper who made the silver staircase ascent into the store. And this was followed by more of the same deep into the interior.
In fairness, it is perhaps instructive to compare like with like and, with this in mind, we looked at the prices of a woman’s summer vest across both stores.
New Look offered this at £3.99 in a variety of colours, with a ‘runner’s back’, displayed on the perimeter and in the mid-shop. In Primark, a similar item was on sale at £3 or £2, depending on whether you wanted a higher back and a front placket.
Both stores had a measure of new season winter stock with autumn/winter-weight coats starting at around the £35 mark in Primark.
Overall, there was surprisingly little difference between the two offers, other than price, with New Look being generally a price point higher. But on the evidence of shopper numbers, Primark certainly had the edge on footfall.
New Look 5/10
It’s tempting to say that Primark and visual merchandising could be viewed, by some, as broadly antithetical. This is probably a lot to do with the sheer volume of shoppers who trek to this store on a daily basis, trash the displays and leave carrying those familiar brown paper bags with multiple purchases.
Faced with this, it’s no surprise that this is more about supermarket-style replenishment than anything else. Therefore meticulous attention to the way things look plays second fiddle to making sure rails remain full. But despite this, the windows still manage to tell the full discount story in a pleasantly low-cost soaraway summer way.
New Look also has appealing windows, even if one is filled with a Sale poster and, generally, in-store housekeeping standards are higher. This is principally because it is less troubled by the West End tourist hordes. Mannequin clusters and some of the displays towards the rear of the store, particularly the footwear department, looked strong.
New Look 6/10
New Look offered an element of service, with pleasant staff checking your correspondent’s welfare at every turn. The fact that the rails were also less jumble sale-like than Primark’s was testimony to both marginally higher standards, and to fewer shoppers, allowing assistants time to ensure things looked shipshape.
In Primark, there was no service, for the reasons outlined earlier. Shoppers in this store are in a clothing supermarket where long checkout queues are the norm. This contrasted sharply with New Look where a sign above the checkouts invited customers to ‘Please wait until called forward’. Not a problem really, as there were few takers at the tills.
New Look 6/10
Perhaps contrary to expectations, both stores are the outcome of a fairly rigorous design process. The New Look store was something of a poster child for the retailer when it was unveiled in 2003 with an interior provided by edgy design consultancy Future Systems. The same was true of Primark, which called upon Dalziel & Pow for its design.
Of the two, and in spite of the crowds, Primark has remained truer to the original intent and the large avenues that dissect the space make finding your way around its large interior straightforward.
The same can’t be said of New Look, which, with the exception of the Hollywood Walk of Fame-style silver staircase at the entrance, has lost much of the va-va-voom that marked it out. It’s also a challenge to navigate as so much stock has been crammed into the space.
New Look 4/10
Would I buy?
In the case of Primark, the level of excitement about the low prices and disposable fashion on offer would probably persuade. There’s also the matter of selection and this is certainly a broad pitch to the bargain-hungry shopper.
The same can’t be said of New Look where, even if the merchandise were up to scratch, the chances of finding it would be considerably lower than at its rival, owing to its crowded interior. Everything that made the New Look interior interesting seems to have been chipped away at. A major rethink seems to be in order.
New Look 5/10
These two titans of the value fashion market differ considerably in their approach. New Look’s offer looks a little desperate given the sheer volume of markdowns rammed into the space. Primark is fashion’s answer to a hypermarket – see it, like it, buy it – there’s little likelihood of quibbles over the price.
New Look address 500-502 Oxford Street, London W1C. Trades from a single floor above street level
Primark address 499-517 Oxford Street, London W1C. Trades from two floors – ground and first
New Look opened 2003
Primark opened 2007
Outstanding feature at New Look The glamorous staircase at the entrance
Outstanding feature at Primark The central, blue-lit, escalator well