A Department Store by Any Other Name…

The new store from cut-price fashion retailer Primark is a milestone in terms of offering an experience on a budget.
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Posted October 24, 2019

When fashion retailer Primark (Dublin) arrived in Boston in late 2015, it took over the premises of a former department store operator named Filene’s. The retailer restored the building and put a new sense of pride into a downtown part of the city that had been somewhat neglected.

It was almost immediately billed as a fast fashion proposition, and from there, the retailer spread its wings, extending to the current nine-strong estate. At no point was it deemed a department store, yet hop across the pond to Birmingham, U.K., and there is a newly opened Primark store that may not trade under that label, but that is exactly what it is.

Primark has been in Birmingham since 2002, but the need for larger premises was pressing and when the opportunity to buy a flagging mall, The Pavilions, presented itself, CEO Paul Marchant and his team swooped. A little more than three years since The Pavilions closed its doors, it was razed and a large structure took its place: The new five-floor, 160,000-square-foot Primark welcomed its first shoppers at the beginning of April 2019.

From the outside, this store has two entrances, one fronting the city’s high street and the other providing access to the Moor Street station, a commuter terminus. The exterior comes into its own at night when a translucent geometric portion of the façade lights up.

Step inside from the high street and visitors encounter an old-fashioned barbershop dubbed Joe Mills. This is a discrete affair, and those seeking a “short, back and sides” can step into the shop-in-shop and be part of the ambience that has made the Joe Mills salon in London’s Soho a success.

Beyond the barbershop lies the atrium, where all five floors can be viewed. There is a restaurant on every level, just like many department stores, and large graphics carry the eye up through the space. There is a 50-seat blow dry and makeup shop, Duck & Dry, on the second floor, and for those who make it to the top level, there is a Primark Café with Disney where casual diners enter through a Mickey Mouse ears-shaped portal.  

In between all of this, there is the full range of Primark merchandise, fashion and homewares, and the summary is that this is a department store, even if the management doesn’t see it that way. CEO Marchant is clear about what has been done: “If you look back at the last 50 years [since Primark was founded] there are a series of milestones, and this is definitely a milestone. This really does move the needle for us in terms of being a customer experience.”

To judge from the number of shoppers checking out the store since opening, it is an experience that is in demand.  

Photography: Jonathan Taylor, Leeds, U.K.