Bonjour, Paris... Primark brings its cheap chic to fashion capital of the world
It's the fashion capital of the world, home to iconic designers like Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent and yesterday high-street giant Penneys/Primark – which is headquartered in Dublin – pulled the shutters up on its first store in Paris.
The fashion chain, which first started out in 1969 with one store on Dublin's Mary Street, has been digesting Gallic retail habits since opening its first French store in Marseilles last December.
Keenly watched by international rivals who are intrigued by the march of its value fashion brand across Ireland, the UK, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Belgium and Austria, Primark today unleashes the first of a three-pronged assault on the hearts, and wallets, of chic jeune filles. It's Paris in the springtime as it bids 'Bonjour' to Paris with its 269th Primark store in the O'Parinor commercial centre located in Aulnay-sous-Bois. April 9 sees its second Parisian store opened in Villeneuve-La-Garenne and, moving strategically around the Parisian banlieu, it opens in Creteil Soleil in June.
There's intense local interest about a subsequent arrival at Val d'Europe, a massive shopping complex close to a busy Value Retail designer outlet mall, a sister to the Kildare Village operation, and close to the tourist honey pot Disneyland Paris.
In a country where loyalty to French brands is heartfelt, the Isabel Marant fashion aesthetic is everywhere, and other French brands receiving lots of love from shoppers are Maje and Sandro. Zara has only medium success in France compared with other countries and the patriotic nature runs deep, so Primark execs will see lots of Renault and Citreon cars in the car park.
Notoriously media shy, Primark's chief executive Paul Marchant was upbeat about its French prospects in an interview with the Irish Independent recently.
"France is our ninth country, we've got successful formulas working so there is absolutely no reason why France shouldn't see the same success as the other European markets have seen. There is always a sense of (trepidation) when you open in a new market, but to see the size of the welcome for us in Marseilles was sensational."
While Primark's experiment selling a limited range online with asos.com went very well last year, the CEO firmly ruled out a move to online when I asked him about it.
"We are very clear, we are a bricks-and-mortar retailer and the finances behind an online model make it unviable for us. We did a trial with asos.com, which we are pleased with. Asos is a great business and we had a really positive reaction and learnt from it. Our average selling prices are low, we work on tight margins and that makes the financial viability of an online model very challenging for us."
Voted number one retailer in the fashion trade bible, 'Drapers Record', Mr Marchant flatly rejects speculation about "the death of the high street".
"Everyone talks about winners and losers, the strong retailers are getting stronger and the weak retailers are disappearing," he says.
"It's a sad state when we see empty sites, but the shape of the high street is changing. The successful people will continue to succeed and there are plenty of good retailers out there. I'm excited about the high street and if you look at the good retailers – ourselves, Inditex, H&M, Uniqlo, Topshop – there are great retailers and there is no reason why the high street can't continue to be vibrant.
"People talk about online. We all respect and see that but what I think is really important . . . is a theatrical experience that you can't create online.
"If you see the buzz of the store just opening, you can't get that online. You can only get that walking around the store. We've put more effort into in-store environment and theatre, so the shopping experience is an exciting one.
"When I see a group of girls shopping in store on a Saturday and there is a buzz about the place and they are having a great time, it's a social event."