Low prices, big gamble: Irish clothier Primark coming to Danbury

By Kevin Zimmerman

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When Ireland-based discount clothing retailer Primark opens its store in the Danbury Fair Mall this summer, it can probably expect strong sales from its target consumer demographic: Fashion-conscious shoppers who usually patronize stores like Forever 21 and H&M, and who are cost-conscious enough to be pleasantly surprised by its Walmart-esque approach to pricing.

As evidenced on its U.S. website – where men’s, women’s and children’s clothing typically cost less than $10, and home décor and bedding offerings go for less than $20 – Primark’s products are priced to sell. Given the entry into home goods by Zara and H&M, and the long-established JCPenney and Kohl’s in the same space, it would appear that Primark is hitting the ground running.

“With U.S. shoppers increasingly seeking budget-friendly merchandise that doesn’t compromise on fashion or quality, there is an ideal opportunity to introduce our well-regarded formula of up-to-the-minute designs at value-for-money prices to the Northeast region,” remarked José Luis Martínez de Larramendi, president of Primark U.S. Corp.

In addition to the 53,600-square-foot store in Danbury, Primark is also opening outlets through 2017 in the Willow Grove Mall (Willow Grove, Pa.), Freehold Raceway Mall (Freehold, N.J.), Burlington Mall (Burlington, Mass.), Staten Island Mall (Staten Island, N.Y.), South Shore Plaza (Braintree, Mass.), and American Dream Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. It already has stores open in Boston’s Downtown Crossing and Pennsylvania’s King of Prussia Mall.

Primark is carefully selecting its locales to avoid competing in major cities (Boston being the exception). Martínez said the Danbury location was chosen because it “offers an ideal and convenient location in Connecticut, with an impressive mix of retail offerings and a strong level of customer demand.”

As is the case with most of its U.S. locations, Primark’s Danbury store is being carved out of an existing Sears store via a lease agreement with the Sears Holding Corp. Once one of the country’s leading retailers, Sears has struggled for years on the retail front, and some reports maintain that it is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Though Martínez declined to share dollar figures regarding Primark’s U.S. move, reports in the U.K. maintained that it was spending as much as £200 million (about $283 million U.S.) to crack the market here. While other famed British retailers like Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury have failed to repeat their success on this side of the Atlantic, analysts generally have reacted favorably to Primark’s approach of emphasizing quality, low-cost merchandise and to its careful rollout in the Northeast, viewed as “more European” than other U.S. regions. The jury is still out on Primark’s decision to not spend money on splashy ad campaigns, preferring instead to rely on social media and word-of-mouth among the fashion cognoscenti.

The company has been redoubling its efforts at presenting itself as a good corporate citizen in the wake of the 2013 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza, a building that housed factories producing garments for 29 brands including Primark. Over 1,110 people died and another 2,400 were injured. The building had been condemned by police for being structurally unsound, but workers were reportedly ordered by factory owners to return to their jobs mere hours before the collapse.

In December 2015 Primark announced that it had completed more than 95 percent of long-term compensation payments to the 672 workers (or their dependents) of its supplier, New Wave Bottoms, who died or were injured. “Total payments now stand at $14 million, of which long-term payments amount to $11 million and have been made in full, in cash, directly by Primark,” the statement said.

This past January, Primark announced a partnership with the U.K. government’s Department for International Development to improve working conditions for garment workers in developing markets, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Ethiopia and India.

Still, the chain has already had its share of controversy in the U.S. Last November, less than three months after Primark opened its first U.S. store in Boston, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1145 alleged that the company had fired or forced out at least 50 employees for trying to unionize.

Primark maintained that some employees had been terminated for performance-related issues, but not for attempting to unionize, adding that many of its 62,000 employees worldwide belong to unions. Local 1145 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that was later withdrawn; calls to the union and its attorney for further information went unreturned.

“Primark is fully committed to the well-being of our employees and provides our workers with competitive wages, good benefits and dignity in the workplace,” Martínez said. “At the Boston store, the employees have not chosen to have a union. We believe that reflects Primark’s commitment to our employees.”

He went on to say that he does not anticipate similar troubles in Danbury. “Primark has a good relationship with our employees,” he said, “whether or not they are represented by a union. This has been true at all of our U.S. stores and will be true in Danbury.”

He also pointed out that Primark has a history of building local relationships in the markets in which it operates. “In Boston we’ve enjoyed meaningful relationships with our charity partner, St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, as well as academic partner MassArt,” he said. “And in King of Prussia, we have partnered with Laurel House to support the group’s work with women in need. In Danbury, we are actively engaging with leaders in the local business community and look forward to building upon these relationships as we near opening, as well as identifying opportunities where we can give back to the community in a meaningful way.”

Though an official Danbury opening date has not been announced, Martínez said it will take place “mid year,” and added that it is looking to fill 232 positions ranging from retail support and merchandising to stockroom roles.

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