Primark readying itself for US adventure: what the experts say

Primark continues to grow sales and profit in its European territories, as the launch date for its US operation moves ever closer.

The fashion retailer's sales in the 24 weeks to 28 February 2015 were 15% ahead of last year at constant currency and adjusted operating profit was up 11%, with the business preparing to enter the north-east of US before the close of the year. In a results statement released this week, George Weston, CEO of Primark parent company Associated British Foods (ABF), said plans for the US "are well advanced".

Preparations include the signing of eight store leases in the north-east of the country, including seven from department store group Sears.  Half a dozen store locations have been announced, including Downtown Crossing in Boston and five in shopping malls across Pennsylvania, New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey. Primark has also signed a lease for warehouse space located in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.

Essential Retail gathered the thoughts of a selection of retail commentators to analyse Primark's strategy and to gauge how successful the value fashion business can be across the Atlantic.

Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel, stated: "What impresses me about Primark is they seem to have made a success of things wherever they have gone. If a retailer can make a success of Germany, they can do well anywhere.

"The combination of low price, value for money and great fashion-ability has caught on in the locations Primark has entered, so they ought to be able to succeed in the US. Retailers with something different or edgy can often perform well in the States."

Nivindya Sharma, retail analyst at Verdict Research, commented: "Primark is fully committed to expansion in the US, which we expect to be successful given its mix of basics and fashion-led ranges, giving it an edge over the likes of US brands Old Navy and Gap.

"Primark would undercut prices at the majority of its potential competitors in the US, attracting price-sensitive shoppers and gaining an advantage in the market. The strength of Primark's offer is undeniable and has the ability to translate across geographies, with its trend-led fashion ranges and keen price points making it a failsafe destination for gifts and also partywear.

"Given that Primark's core customers are aged 16–24, the retailer must embrace digital marketing – something it has been slow to adopt historically – to connect with shoppers and create awareness and excitement about the brand prior to its launch in the US."

David Lowrence, director at retail consultancy Gatherum, remarked: "Primark is following in the footsteps of some household UK names, who have had less than stellar success with their US ventures.

"The US fashion retail market is highly developed and very aggressive, but Primark has shown it can live with the best of the European pack, and has beaten expectations time after time. Tesco will tell everyone how difficult it can be, and it looks as though Primark having learned from others' mistakes, will, rather than rebrand for a new market, carry their European success and trademark "fast fashion" as is into the US. The differentiation, over and above fast fashion, can be enhanced by some of the best selling technology that Europe has to offer. True integration of buying channels, backed up by in-store digital selling and targeted customer relationships, will catch many of their US fashion competitors on the back foot. Perhaps it is time to see a real magic mirror experience drive sales rather than excite interest.

"The first six locations offer an opportunity to show, in very upmarket locations, how an integrated selling approach, with agile and personal transaction journeys, can build a loyal and deep customer base quickly and at lower cost. It will not be a walk in the park, but Primark has the locations, technology, and focused trading model to be a success where others have stumbled."

David Alexander, consultant at retail research company Conlumino, said: "Having had such unbridled success in extending its offer across the continent, Primark is entitled to enter its next ambitious venture, that of conquering America where it will begin opening stores towards the end of the year, with some confidence.

"Its strategy of focusing on one corner of the US, eschewing prime locations like Manhattan, to ensure that it meets consumer expectations in the States head on before rolling out nationwide, looks a sound one. Its cautious approach will also see Primark make an entrance with little capital outlay as it will lease its stores and warehouse rather than own them outright.

"Facing off against familiar foes, like Inditex, H&M and Topshop should help Primark feel at home. Such fast fashion players have already won favour with the cash-strapped teen market, putting domestic retailers under pressure. Meanwhile, Primark's exemplary merchandising and high quality store design, should ensure that as in Europe and, increasingly in the UK, it is seen as a mainstream fashion option rather than a downmarket bargains warehouse."

Nick Bubb, independent retail consultant, said: "The US is not exactly short of big box clothing stores and the record of UK retailers in the US is not great, but the ex-Sears shopping mall sites look OK and who would have thought that Primark would have done as well as they have in Spain and Germany etc, so it's a brave man who would bet against them succeeding in the US."