Opening its US market push, Primark eyes success at Boston site

September 10 is the long-awaited big day for Primark and Boston’s Downtown Crossing. The Dublin-based fashion retailer is opening the doors to its first US store in the redeveloped Burnham Building, once the home of Filene’s and the late, lamented Filene’s Basement.

Primark’s foray into the American retail market stretches across four floors of the venerable structure. On the first and second floors will be women’s clothing and apparel; men’s clothing will be on the third floor. On the fourth floor is children’s clothing. Shoppers looking for shoes and accessories will find them on each floor.

What American customers will find on all four floors is Primark’s array of “in the moment fashion” and home goods at the reasonable prices that has made the chain a huge success in Europe. Retail industry insiders view Primark as akin to Swedish-based H & M, Spanish-based Zara, and Los Angeles-based Forever 21.

In a visit to the Boston site last March, Breege O’Donoghue, a Primark board member and director of business development and new markets, told the Boston Globe that “the stores target fashion-conscious millennials but also appeal to a much wider demographic.”

A Primark press release in March stated that the chain planned to open stores “in the USA…located close to areas of high-urban density and that would benefit from high levels of existing customer footfall.” With the ongoing redevelopment of Downtown Crossing, “customer footfall” should be a given.

Primark’s board selected Boston as the ideal site from which to spread the word throughout the US. Said O’Donoghue to the Globe: “We recognize that there’s not a high level of awareness about Primark,” she said. “We’re a value retailer. Our business is about affordable fashion at great quality and great prices.”

Even as the doors to Primark in Downtown Crossing are flinging open this month, the chain is already planning seven more stores in the US by the end of 2016, including ones at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, and in the Burlington Mall. The Boston store features 84 fitting rooms and a small army of over 500 mannequins. A 1,000-square-foot “trend room” at the front of the store will present mannequins clad in the chain’s most popular and trendy fashions.

At 77,000 square feet, Primark is smaller than next-door neighbor Macy’s. Still, if the Irish chain’s success in Europe is a predictor, the maiden US store should offer Macy’s a literal run for its money.

In a welcome development for the local economy, Primark has announced the hiring of some 550 employees ranging from part-time and full-time retail workers to hires for the store’s visual merchandising department and department and upper-level management. Solidifying the Irish chain’s commitment to Boston, the offices of the company’s US headquarters are a short walk away at 101 Arch Street.

Primark’s distribution center is in Pennsylvania, where the chain plans to open its second American store.

Primark executives and retail analysts have been quick to point out that the Downtown Crossing store is not a second incarnation of Filene’s Basement, which was famed for selling famous name-brands such as Calvin Klein at steep discounts. Primark’s niche is its own labels and clothing, shoes, and accessories purchased direct from manufacturers.

If a company’s past is prologue, Primark is certainly poised to cause a large 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 Mitchell opened a Penneys store on Mary Street in Dublin. Within a few years, four more Penneys sprouted up in the Greater Dublin area. The operation garnered attention in the industry because of its affordable merchandise and approach, and as the company expanded throughout Ireland and then into the UK, the stores were named Primark, except in Ireland. On the eve of its entry into the US market, Primark’s corporate profile notes that today “it operates over 270 stores in nine countries in 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.”

The timing for Primark in Boston appears propitious with the redevelopment of Downtown Crossing under way and with residential and commercial space being gobbled up at such sites as the upscale Millenium Place. For locals who grew up accustomed to Macy’s (the erstwhile Jordan Marsh), Filene’s, and Filene’s Basement, the sight of the recently blighted area on its way back to being a commercial cornerstone of Boston conjures a sense of nostalgia.

Downtown Crossing is – nostalgically speaking again – a fitting locale for the Irish-spawned Primark/Penneys to open. After all, an Irish immigrant opened the first store in Boston’s annals 385 years ago, in 1630, and he did so on a plot of land on the north-east 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. On Sept. 10, another Irish-tinged retail milestone will unfold at Downtown Crossing.