Tuesday 20 August 2019

Thanks, Penneys: how this Irish shopping institution became a global superstar celebrating 50 years

Popular firm bucks high street woes as it keeps growing

Penneys' SS19 campaign
Penneys' SS19 campaign
Penneys on Mary Street
An old advert from the 1990s
Queues outside Penneys for a sale in the early days
A pyjama set from a recent fashion launch by the chain
Primark CEO Paul Marchant (right) meeting with Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Primark founder Arthur Ryan (second left), and US Product Controller Mary Beth Kelley, in Penneys in Dublin last year. Photo: Garrett Quinn
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Penneys is an Irish institution - right up there with Superquinn sausages, and Bryan Dobson's braces.

You'd be hard pressed to meet any shopper who hasn't replied: "Thanks, Penneys" at least once.

Yesterday, the store celebrated 50 years in business, with a party where it all began, on Dublin's Mary Street.

Retailer Arthur Ryan opened the first store on behalf of the Weston family in 1969.

Queues outside Penneys for a sale in the early days
Queues outside Penneys for a sale in the early days

Back then, it offered "pile-them-high, sell-them-cheap" clothing.

But over the past five decades things have shifted and Penneys's fashion credibility has shot up - thanks partially to the breakneck speed with which it responds to trends.

On the high street, it has become something of a fashion oddity.

While its competitors are shutting up shop, sitting on billions of unsold clothes, or issuing profit warnings, Penneys has not just survived the high street downturn, it's thrived.

"Many UK and European retailers are in a graveyard at the moment," equity research analyst Katy Hutchinson said.

"But Penneys is the exception. It keeps growing."

An old advert from the 1990s
An old advert from the 1990s

Earlier this year it opened a 160,000 sq ft behemoth store in Birmingham - complete with a Disney-themed cafe, a nail bar and hair salon, a barber, and a Hogwarts Wizarding World area.

The company now has 372 stores in 12 countries, and more than 75,000 employees.

And its continuing to expand with stores planned to open in Poland and Slovenia.

This growth is even more impressive given that Penneys has no online shopping, no big TV ad campaigns, and no 'Love Island' sponsorship deals.

According to retail guru Eddie Shanahan, the key to its success is simple - it's tribal.

"Penneys know its tribe, and its tribe trusts it. They know that Penneys will always deliver and will always be reliable," he said.

Penneys on Mary Street
Penneys on Mary Street

This seemed to be the feeling among customers enjoying the 50th-year celebrations on the Mary Street shop floor.

"You will always find something in Penneys," Christine Doyle from Sallins said.

"They have a great variety and everything is always changing.

"I come in three or four times a week. Even if I had no money, I'd still go in."

Penneys reacts to trends quickly, and that's a huge draw for customers.

The clothing is also of a high quality, and they stock a much more inclusive range of sizes than their competitors.

"Penneys brings ideas and trends from the white board to the market very quickly," Ms Hutchinson added.

"In that regard, it is very agile, and customers like that."

To date, Penneys has not offered an online shopping experience, although there is talk of a future click-and- collect in-store service.

The lack of online shopping is partially down to economics; no one wants to pay €2.50 package and posting for a €4 T-shirt.

It also forces people into the shop. And once you've walked through the door, it's got you.

"You come in for a pair of socks and leave with €200 worth of clothes," one customer said yesterday.

"It's a bit like Ikea that way."

To encourage and entice shoppers in, Penneys is making its stores more "experiential".

The Mary Street store has a brow bar, and a 'Primarket' cafe is due to open soon.

"They want the shop to become a destination for shoppers," Ms Hutchinson explained.

"People will spend time there. They don't just shop and leave."

Retail expert and founder of the Irish Council of Irish Fashion Designers Eddie Shanahan also believes the retailer listens and responds adroitly to its customers.

"They don't instruct their customers, they inspire them," he said.

"Other labels talk down to their customers and Penneys doesn't do that.

"It's also constantly evolving and offering new things and that excites people."

Irish Independent

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