The UK-based, fast-fashion behemoth Primark has, to date, avoided the Canadian retail market, despite an aggressive expansion within the United States over the past few years. With the closure of all Canadian Forever 21 stores, is there an opportunity for Primark to enter the Canadian market and satisfy a need that has been, perhaps otherwise, left unfulfilled?
In September 2019, Forever 21 closed all 45 Canadian stores, leaving about 900,000 square feet of retail space open and available. Forever 21 is known for its affordable fast-fashion clothing. It filled a very specific need within the Canadian retail market, which many shoppers, who were previously reliant on Forever 21’s affordable, trendy retail, were left wondering where they were going to source their next bargain.
Swooping in to fill much of the 900,000-square-feet of retail space that Forever 21 vacated was Urban Planet, now one of Canada’s fastest growing brands with over 100 locations across the country. Similar to Primark and Forever 21, Urban Planet caters towards a younger demographic or those who are hoping to follow fashion trends whilst on a budget. They describe themselves as unique in size and concept — which seems to be somewhat unsubstantiated considering the various comparisons one can draw between the three retailers in question — with their retail philosophy being “shopping should be fun and great fashion should be accessible to everyone”, Urban Planet has set up shop (quite literally) to service all who had their hearts broken by the departure of Forever 21.
Despite being owned by the Canadian Weston family under its Associated British Foods umbrella, Primark began in 1969 in Dublin, Ireland. Known in the Republic of Ireland as Penneys (the name Penneys has not been used internationally because of American retail J.C. Penney), the company now operates in 370 stores across Europe and the United States, with the UK being the clear leader in terms of consumption with 191 Primark stores.
Primark has yet to enter the Canadian market, though sources several years ago informed Retail Insider that Primark was eyeing the Canadian market around the same time that the retailer’s US expansion launched. There’s no word yet on Primark’s plans to open stores in Canada — while it is more costly to do business in Canada as a retailer, the Canadian market is still a target for many international brands. Over the past three years, more than 100 international brands have entered Canada by opening standalone stores.
Primark entered the US market in 2015 with a single store in Boston. As of 2019, Primark has eight stores across the US, with the most recent set to open at the American Dream complex in New Jersey, and plans for its first store outside the Northeastern Corridor in Sawgrass Mills, Miami sometime in 2020. This is a clear indicator of how well received Primark has been in the US, a surprise to some who thought its high-street fashion items would not appeal to the American market.
Unlike the Forever 21 and Urban Planet, Primark does not have an ecommerce site. Despite a brief trial run in partnership with ASOS (that didn’t last due to shipping prices often exceeding product prices), Primark has stuck to the traditional brick and mortar medium. Although it does have an online presence with a website showcasing its products and an Instagram hosting over 8 million followers.
It would seem that Primark doesn’t need to follow the crowd in terms of retail trends because even without an ecommerce presence 2019 saw a revenue of 7.79 billion pounds generated for the brand, and as of early 2018, it held 6.9% share in the UK’s clothing market. Compare that to a revenue of $4.4 billion US (approx 3.4 billion pounds) for Forever 21, at its peak in 2017.
So perhaps it would seem like the niche has been filled and that the Canadian market would not be supremely profitable for Primark. Judging by the statistics, however, Canadians, along with the rest of the western world, are addicted to low-cost, disposable fashion. In comparison to two decades ago, Canadians purchase 400 per cent more clothing per year, and each household throws out an average of 46 kg of textiles annually, making up about 10 per cent of municipal landfills.
Will Primark attempt to infiltrate the Canadian retail landscape within the coming years? We don’t know, only time will tell. What we know for sure, however, is that our conditioned need for instant gratification is only becoming more apparent and growing aggressively alongside our country’s landfills. Given the rapid entry of international brands into the Canadian market, not to mention the US expansion, we may see Primark stores in Canada in years to come.