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Enter Primark, into Downtown Crossing

By Peter Stevens, BIR Staff, special to the BIR, May 30, 2014

It somehow seems fitting that one of Ireland’s top retailers would choose Boston for the chain’s first foray into the United States marketplace. When the giant clothing chain, better known as Penneys to countless Irish Americans, announced that it will move into the historic downtown building that long housed Filene’s, the news reflected the evolving resurgence of the moribund “hole-in-the-ground” site.
Primark will take over four floors and 70,000 square feet of the Burnham Building as soon as Millenium Partners, the area’s New York developer, completes renovations to the structure. The Boston store is slated to open its doors in late 2015, serving as a springboard for Primark in other cities in the Northeast in 2016. According to Breege O’Donoghue, Primark’s human resources and business-development director, “We’re hoping in the first year to open nine stores in the northeast corridor.”
If a company’s past is prologue, Primark is certainly poised to cause more than a ripple in American retailing. In Europe, the chain is part of the clothing and apparel landscape. Primark’s saga began in June 1969, when Arthur Ryan and Micaela Mitchel opened a store named Penneys on Mary Street in Dublin. Within a few years, four more Penneys had sprouted up in the Greater Dublin area. The operation garnered attention in the industry because of its affordable, fashion-forward merchandise and marketing approach, and as the company expanded throughout Ireland and then into the UK, the stores were named Primark except in Ireland where Penneys stood its ground.
The corporate profile notes: “[Primark] today operates in over 270 stores in nine countries in Europe and growing with the first US store opening in Boston in 2015. Primark is our company name and identifies our entire company, while Penneys is a trading name that is used in the Republic of Ireland only. You may have noticed that when we used the name Penneys in Ireland we always follow this with ‘Operated by Primark,’ which you can see on our shopping bags.”
Other UK-based retailers have tested the American waters and foundered. Among the well-known chains that failed to crack the US market successfully were WH Smith, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, and Tesco. Although Ted Baker and Topshop have garnered a measure of success in America, Primark is confident that their stores will flourish here. The company does have reason for that confidence, with its 2014 reputation as “one of the fastest-growing retail businesses in western Europe.”
Retail analyst and fashion expert Maureen Hinton told Reuters that Primark’s prospects in Boston and beyond are encouraging. “Young fashion is global now. The US tended to be quite conservative in fashion. I think that has changed because of the global access in fashion and entertainment. The main point about Primark is its price positioning….it has all the trappings of the big stores and the feel of a more expensive fashion brand. I am sure that the likes of [US rival] Forever 21 are a bit worried.”
Hinton also pointed out that Primark had not exhausted its prospects for expansion in Europe. “Primark has got potential to become a global fashion brand.
In a media statement following Primark’s announcement of its plan for Downtown Crossing, George Weston, CEO of Associated British Foods, which owns Primark, said: “We think we have as differentiated and attractive a proposition in the US as we have in continental Europe and the British Isles. We think we have something special to offer.”
The timing for Primark in Boston appears propitious. The long-awaited redevelopment of Downtown Crossing is under way, with residential and commercial space being gobbled up at such sites as the upscale Millenium Place, which has sold every unit. For locals who grew up accustomed to Macy’s (the erstwhile Jordan Marsh), Filene’s, and the late, great Filene’s Basement, the sight of the recently blighted area on its way back to being a commercial cornerstone of Boston conjures both nostalgia and a sense that Downtown Crossing is indeed on the way back.
As noted in last month’s BIR, Downtown Crossing is – again, nostalgically speaking – a fitting locale for the Irish-spawned Primark/Penneys to open. After all, an Irish immigrant opened the first store in Boston 384 years ago, in 1630, and did so on a plot of land on the northeast corner of the future State and Washington Streets within shouting distance of the future Downtown Crossing Primark. No one would have likely called John Cogan “fashion forward,” but the purveyor of dry goods, hardware, and other essentials in Boston’s first store shared a “retail-forward” approach with Irish-born Primark.