Primark Takes New York -- With No Advertising

Primark, the Irish fast-fashion retailer, thinks the holidays are the perfect time to storm the New York market. In a push toward its 60-store goal, the retailer is opening three high-profile stores, with Long Island's Roosevelt Field already open and Queens and Brooklyn units on the verge. Kevin Tulip, president of Primark's U.S. division, tells Retail Insider how it's building brand awareness stateside -- without any advertising or ecommerce.

Retail Insider: Many experts would say the way to enter new markets is using advertising to build brand awareness, yet Primark does almost none. How does that work?

Kevin Tulip: We've been around since 1969, so we're not new at this. We rely on word of mouth. And we've also built and gained a lot of social media followers, using Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok to build a big following in Europe, which we're starting to do here.

We opened our first store in Boston in 2015 and now have 14 locations, including Chicago and Florida. We're testing different models. We've been very selective about sites and will reach 60 stores in five years. And it's not just about location; they have to be the right size for us. We're finding that 35,000 square feet is our sweet spot. The Roosevelt Field location is a bit bigger, at 44,000 square feet. And with each location, we have to be very clear on how we fit into that community.

Retail Insider: So what's the reason not to advertise?

Tulip: It's been our policy for a long time. To deliver on the quality and price we do, we have to have strong cost leadership. That comes from how we buy and manufacture our products, efficiencies in our supply chain, not having expensive tags and hangers -- and not using expensive ad campaigns. Price is what makes us unique. And we're signing long-term leases and understand it will take time. We're already engaging with the community in Albany and Buffalo, going in early. Everything from recruitment to store openings build that word of mouth.

Retail Insider: So Primark is the Trader Joe's of fast fashion?

Tulip: It has served us so well. Word of mouth builds and gives us incredible results in these new markets. Someone comes in and finds an amazing shirt for $12, and they get that moment of surprise and delight from the in-store experience.

Retail Insider: Retailers have invested billions in omnichannel efforts, yet you have no ecommerce. Why?

Tulip: We don't have a transactional website, but there are developments. In the U.K., we've just launched click-and-collect in 25 stores, which is an effort to bring customers into the store. And we've also updated our website so people check stock availability online before they go into the store. But we want to add incremental sales. We certainly don't want to take footfall out of the store.

Retail Insider: What are the main differences between U.S. and European Primark customers?

Tulip: I moved here a year ago and have worked in a number of European countries, too. I've always found it interesting to see nuances from country to country. One difference is in licensed products like Disney, the NFL, and the NBA. There's such a huge demand for those in the U.S. Another nuance is the growth of children's wear over the last few years. It's a very important category for us everywhere, but we've seen strong growth here in the U.S., particularly given the cost of living now.

Retail Insider: You have plenty of competition in fast fashion. H&M, Zara, Target and Walmart all sell clothing at value. What's different about Primark?

Tulip: Our proposition of quality and price is unique to the U.S. market. That's why word of mouth works so well for us. We've got an incredible core range, and people talk about us with their friends. One example is we've got these great NBA varsity jackets for just $55. Everyone I've spoken to is going on about how great they are -- and they tell their friends.

Retail Insider: You're also expanding your sustainability efforts?

Tulip: Yes. Primark Cares, our sustainability initiative, now encompasses 45% of our range. We're using materials that are recycled or more sustainably sourced.

Retail Insider: Some research indicates that Americans are less motivated by sustainability claims than their European counterparts. Have you found that to be true?

Tulip: We have a global approach to sustainability and want to be the same everywhere. But yes, it is different from region to region. Customers talk about it more in some countries. But I wouldn't say there's a drastic difference here.

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