“It’s Primarni, Darling” — 60 Minutes in the World’s Largest Primark

Shell suits, moon boots — even, lime green corduroys for my first school disco. WTF was my Mum thinking?!

Throughout the early ’90s, fast-fashion retailer, Primark, was all the rage, and my Mum loved shopping there! I fashioned the mullet to compliment those now notorious styles. I certainly turned heads. Shame my Mum didn’t turn my head to realise that party at the back, wasn’t much of a party. Pat Sharpe has a lot to answer for.

For the benefit of my American readers, many of us Brits refer to the fast-fashion retailer, Primark, as “Primarni”, after Primark’s designer-inspired clothes — think, $10 imitations of high-end designer jackets and bags (Chanel, Balenciaga, Burberry, etc), for example. This, being in much the same vein that Target is referred to as, “Tar-jay” (with the silly faux-French accent).

In recent years, Primark has undergone somewhat of a renaissance, with hipper and trendier clothing lines, as well as a rebranding exercise, appealing to a younger, broader and more diverse demographic than it once used to attract. It’s fair to say, the retailer has seen significant success with their efforts too.

The Shoe department on one of the two Womenswear floors.

Little over a week ago, Primark opened its flagship store in the heart of England’s “Second City” — Birmingham. Not only that, but it also happens to be the world’s largest Primark. No pressure then.

With it being an unseasonably scorching hot “Good Friday” (which never happens on a national holiday — it’s usually p**sing it down!), I thought it would be a great idea to drag my Primark-loving fiancée, along with my two children — Max (3) and Mia (2) — to pay a visit. It’s only a 40-mile drive, after all…

A view of Primark from the Moor Street side (adjacent to The Selfridges Building and Moor Street Train Station).

Approaching from the Moor Street side of the store (there’s also an entrance off the High Street), you quickly get a sense of just how huge the store is from the outside, especially when you see it sat side-by-side with the behemoth that is The Selfridges Building, belonging to the well-renowned British department store of the same name.

Setting foot in the store was reminiscent of the first time I visited the big Macy’s store in NYC, in the run-up to Christmas — minus the smell of cheap celebrity fragrances being wafted around in my face, by overly keen Sales Associates.

There was a sea of people for as far as the eye could see, in every direction. Heading up from one floor to another, there were scenes of chaos everywhere. Clothes were strewn across the floor. Customers were barging past one another. Typical Primark customer behaviour to be fair.

A view of one of the Disney-themed departments.

15-minutes into our visit, I turned around to my fiancee and said to her, “Forget Primark, this is five floors of hell!” Again, for those across the pond familiar with Sway’s “Five Fingers of Death” on NYC’s Hot 97 radio station, at this point in the visit, I felt like I was participating in the Retail equivalent. Each floor had its own challenges to negotiate, made even harder with a pushchair and two toddlers. If ever there were an ideal time to play “Move B**ch” by Ludacris on a Bluetooth speaker, very loud, this was it.

Level 0 (the floor for the High Street entrance) was by far the worst floor. We were literally shoulder to shoulder with everyone. You could not move. It was gridlock and people were quickly losing their patience with one another. We had no chance with the pushchair, so as fast as we got off the lift, we were back on it. If Richard Ashcroft ever fancies shooting a revamped version of his video for The Verve’s, “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, this is the floor to do it.

Signage by the lifts detailing what departments can be found on each floor.

On a more positive note, it was great to see that there were staff on hand, quite literally, everywhere — by the toilets, by the lifts, and some even in charge of queue management on the approach to the tills. It was a well-oiled operation. Senior members of staff appeared to be on hand to help their lesser-experienced colleagues (especially, around the till points), communicating with one another over the five floors, via their headsets. Much like a duck gliding across the water, on the surface, it looked like things were just about under control operationally, but beneath, you could sense the breakneck speeds the staff were having to work at to keep up with the sheer volume of footfall.

The snaking queue for the t-shirt printing service.

As far as experiential retail is concerned, this is a case study example of how to do it well. But by no means, was it the perfect execution. It has all the right foundations in place — a beauty studio and various dining experiences across three of the floors, including a Disney-themed cafe. There is also a facility to design, customise and print your own t-shirt, there and then. You can even spray paint your own doughnut… although that’s the kinda BS, I would expect to see come to life on The Apprentice — and result in the team losing that week’s challenge. At £3 a pop, you’d be better off spending that money on a 10-pack of cotton jersey boxer shorts, instead.

One of the many dining options available in-store.

Even so, I can’t help but feel that Primark’s big wigs have missed out on a significant opportunity. Namely, in accommodating for the needs of those that hate shopping, and that especially hate shopping in Primark. This store is crying out for an equivalent of a stress-free, relaxation zone that caters to everybody — a gender-neutral “Man Cave” of sorts, for the lack of a better term. A safe haven for those that quite frankly, don’t want to be in Primark, but have little to no choice.

As an example, I saw numerous Dads congregated around the central area of each floor, away from the clothes racks, perching against the railings around the escalators, trying to keep their children entertained — much like spectators from the various districts in The Hunger Games. They looked fed up and brassed off. There was absolutely nothing there to keep them entertained (nor their children) while their better halves shopped to their heart’s content, ignorant to the battles and fights brewing around them.

A huge Mickey Mouse banner featured outside the Disney-themed cafe.

Likewise, the queuing experience could have been so much better. We joined a queue, on what appeared to be the quietest of the five floors (childrenswear), but still had to wait a good 20 minutes, before finally reaching the tillpoints. There was nothing to engage us or to help pass that time. For a retailer that has such strong ties to Disney, it would have been beneficial to enlist the help of those who know a thing or two about queue entertainment at their theme parks.

In all honesty, I have no doubt that this store will thrive over time. It’s got all the makings for a great flagship. Judging by the broad range of regional dialects I heard in-store today (there were A LOT of customers from Yorkshire, especially), people will travel from far and wide to visit the “world’s largest Primark”. Even so, for all the good that this store offers, or shows signs of offering in the long-run, it’s not a flagship example of experiential retail at its finest. It’s some way off. On today’s evidence, I feel it further emphasises the lack of understanding Retailers have around the need to design experiences that cater to everybody that sets foot in their store — not just those doing the shopping.