Preparing for a possible stampede, the Irish discount retailer Primark had set up row upon row of crowd control barriers in front of its flagship Boston store – its first in the US. It didn’t need them.
Years of planning have gone into the opening. Ninety minutes before the doors opened on Thursday, just 11 people were queuing outside the former Filene’s department store in downtown Boston.
“I got here at 8am, and I was the first in line,” said Peri Tur, 21, a student who caught the ‘Primania’ bug when on an internship at the Palace of Westminster in London. “I certainly expected it to be much more popular. I used to live in London so I’m very much aware of it – but maybe people here aren’t – it was one of the very few things that was affordable in London.”
Tur, who is from Las Vegas but studying archaeology and international relations at Boston University, said she expected a buzz about Primark would start to build quickly when local people begin to realise just how cheap its clothes are. Tur, who said she “probably shouldn’t buy anything, but I’ll probably end up buying more shoes”, reckoned Primark’s clothes and shoes were about 40% cheaper than US budget rival chains TJ Maxx and Marshalls.
The “amazing prices” have been drilled into the 590 staff hired to run the store. Paul Gassner, Primark’s regional manager who will oversee this and three other of Primark’s eight to 10 planned US stores, makes sure to point out all the prices on a tour of the four-floor 77,000 sq ft store. There are skinny jeans for $7 (£4.50), sweaters for $8, sneakers (trainers) for $9, and suitcase to carry it all home in for $30-50.
“The prices really are amazing,” Gassner said.”It’s just so much cheaper than you would get elsewhere.”
He is visibly excited as he points out bespoke metal fretwork designed to complement the 1911 Beaux Arts Filene’s building. But the most impressive element to the store, in his opinion, are the banks of 84 fitting rooms (complete with sofa areas for friends to discuss their possible purchases) and a man-friendly phone charging and chillout zone. “If the men can’t keep up with their lady friends, we’ll have ESPN streaming live from 8am.”
Gassner, who joined Primark from more upmarket rival Macy’s, has really bought into Primark. “This suit,” he says pointing at a rack of Cedar Wood suits. “Is $70. I am modelling this suit, and it feels great.”
A member of the tour group jokes that it may look nice, but advises not to “stand too close to a naked flame”. When asked Gassner doesn’t know what material the suit is made from and looks at the label. “100% wool shell, with a polyester lining. That’s better than I thought,” he says.
Gassner was not the only executive proudly wearing Primark as Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, officially opened the store on Thursday. Breege O’Donoghue, Primark’s group director of business development and new markets, who at 71 is slightly out of the stores target age range, is wearing a “blue three-piece ensemble” which she said cost $50.
John Bason, finance director of Primark’s parent company, Associated British Food, is wearing a “mixture” of Primark and other labels. “I could show you if you really want,” he says jokingly tugging at his waistband.
Bason said he was really pleased with how the opening of the store (the company’s 292nd) had gone, but admitted to quite a few months of nervous anxiety in the buildup. He said he wasn’t concerned that there weren’t too many people waiting to get into the store before it opened, and said he reckoned about 1,000 had been through the doors in the first hour.
It was different, he conceded, to the opening of a new Primark store on London’s Oxford Street in 2007 when 3,000 people overwhelmed 50 security guards and stampeded into the store, injuring two staff badly enough to require hospital treatment.
Bason said he had never expected the Boston opening to be overwhelmed by eager shoppers as Primark’s brand does not have the awareness it does in the UK or Europe, but he hopes that will change rapidly. The company hosted influential fashionistas and bloggers at a reception in the store on Wednesday night and hopes they will spread the word on social media.
“We’re not suddenly opening the doors,” Bason said. “We’ve been doing targeted awareness [raising] in the fashion media – I think there is a high awareness of our coming, certainly there is in the industry. We’ve got to get that translated into our customers, it’s the customers that really matter.
“It’s going to be word of mouth, not mainstream advertising, that’s how we did it in the UK in the 1990s,” he said. “Now it will be via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on.”
Signs throughout the store encourage customers to take photos of their new purchases and upload them to social media with the hashtag #Primania.
However, outside the store in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area protesters are also asking customers to tweet photos of them. The United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is protesting against Primark’s refusal to meet with them to discuss the unionisation of its employees and low wages paid.
In the US, employees can vote on whether or not to establish a union. Fabricio DaSilva, UFCW’s campaign director, said Primark’s management had failed to create an environment where its workers felt they could happily discuss unionisation. “They are ignoring us,” he said. “They should discuss it with us and with their staff.”
Bason said Primark was not trying to stop staff joining a union but said it was for staff to decide on their own without the influence of the company.
DaSilva said Primark’s US staff are paid as little as $10 an hour. Primark refused to state how much staff are paid, but said rates were “competitive with that of similar retailers”.
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