Can Primark survive in a post-pandemic, sustainable fashion era?

By Annie Smith

We are yet to see the long-term effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, such as how it impacts our shopping habits, personal relationships, work environment, and wellbeing. However, between data on British shoppers and the rise in opposition to the fast fashion industry, signs are already pointing to the fact that shops like Primark are becoming the retail of the past.

Primark is a representation of fast fashion, with many stating that their clothes exist for one-wear use: their stores rapidly change their inventory by month and season, stores promote buying many items in one go due to their low prices, and because of their low prices customers claim that their items do not last beyond a few wears.

As consumers navigate shopping post-lockdown, it is possible that habits adapted in quarantine will last even with most shops now open.

For one, the closure of retail stores for nearly three months led to a boost in online sales. Online retailer Amazon reported a major increase in demand in its first quarter earnings as the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll.

But while most stores were able to continue sales via their online services, Primark went from £650m in sales a month to nothing as it lacks an online store. While initially the company viewed their absence of an online presence as a way to keep prices down, worldwide lockdowns have illuminated that this contradicts contemporary consumer attitudes towards online shopping. While consumer spending decreased during the three months in lockdown, shoppers still took to online stores to buy both essential and non-essential items.

This is a cause of concern to Primark, as the importance of physical stores and in person shopping experiences appears to be dwindling. The British Retail Consortium reported that total footfall in UK shops could decrease by more than 77 per cent, partially due to a change in shopping culture.

New retail restrictions are creating a shopping environment far from conducive to the relaxing shopping trips with friends that consumers once enjoyed. As of 15 June, when stores in England began to reopen, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that businesses must follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene guidelines. For retail, this means fitting rooms will be closed, large families or groups will be permitted from entering together, and customers will be encouraged to use hand sanitiser and not pick up items as they browse.

Stores will also permit the number of customers allowed inside the store, meaning the large queues seen on 15 June when stores re-opened could become commonplace and discourage consumers from venturing to stores. After all, all of these safety procedures and long queues can be avoided by placing orders online instead.

While these effects will be felt by all retailers, fast fashion stores like Primark could also be left behind as influencers and consumers as a whole abandon it for more sustainable and ethical alternatives. 

Studies into Primark’s manufacturing have shown that because of its large volume of stock, Primark uses more carbon emissions than their high street neighbours. Even efforts to become more sustainable and statements on ethical practices should be taken with a grain of salt:  a study from the University of Sheffield found that 17 out of 20 leading fashion brands claimed a commitment to living wages for their workers, yet “the report concluded these [claims] are worthless,” and low wages are still the status quo among most garment companies.

Now, influencers are switching from large Primark hauls to thrift shop hauls, and online second-hand companies are beginning to crowd out their fast fashion competitors. The secondhand market itself currently stands at $24 billion thanks to apps like Poshmark and Depop and stores such as Goodwill. According to a report from ThredUp, an online thrift store on the rise, resale is growing 21 times faster than the broader retail market and will become a $51 billion industry by 2023.

With shopping culture shifting due to the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers beginning to ditch fast fashion for sustainable alternatives, it is clear that Primark represents the retail of the past. The company must either change its persona and practices or get left behind as consumers welcome in a new era of retail.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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