“Really? Primark? Three months stuck at home and that is where you decided to go and queue?”
Boxing Day sales, Black Friday – news channels love a good queue, so there was plenty of footage of queues snaking round the block outside numerous Primark stores yesterday, and countless others, as some lockdown restrictions were lifted and non-essential retailers began to reopen. Unfortunately, that also meant plenty of opportunities for people to sneer. You could feel the derision emanating from the tweets that flooded our timelines yesterday morning.
To a certain kind of individual, Primark is everything wrong with the world. Its products are cheap, mass-produced, and the fast-fashion it embodies is not great for the environment, and its working practices – especially in its production line – leave much to be desired. Anyone who rushes to shop there just isn’t their kind of person. Better off sticking to Zara.
Primark is all those things. But that doesn’t mean its customers deserve derision.
When I started university, one of the major things that stuck in my head was that I discovered my hometown didn’t have a Primark. I mean, obviously I knew it didn’t have a Primark. But university was the first time when that meant something.
For me, Primark – or Pri-marni as my grandmother always called it – was an exciting, gigantic store that only existed in other places. It was the highlight of a shopping trip to Meadowhall – the second biggest shopping centre in the UK when it opened and a mere 75-mile round trip from my front door. I didn’t realise other people grew up popping to Primark everything weekend. Imagine!
In those early freshers week conversations about hometowns and growing up, not having a Primark (or a Nandos, the other hallmark of coming from a decent sized town not a piddly little one like me) was a shock. How could I possibly have survived my teenage years without one?
Which brings me to Primark consumer group number one: teenagers. Specifically, teenage girls. If you haven’t got a lot of disposal income, Primark is your number one go-to shop. You don’t need Mum and Dad to tag along with the credit card, here’s a shop where you can find a full outfit – including handbag and shoes – for under £20. Under a tenner, if you ditch the accessories.
Primark means independence for millions of young people. Whether it’s spending their pocket money or paycheck from that first Saturday job, or piling into changing rooms with your friends instead of your parents trailing along, it’s often the first taste of shopping like an adult. Who can blame teenagers that have been trapped at home for weeks for jumping at the chance to claw back a bit of normality with £1 earrings and Harry Potter backpacks?
Speaking of parents, group two in our round-the-block queue were Mum and Dad. Kids can grow a lot in three months and who can blame them for needing to kit the little ones out in new clothes. Primark might sit towards the bottom of the ladder when it comes to price, and arguably their clothes are designed to be worn, worn out, and thrown away – but when it comes to little kids doesn’t that make sense? What fits tomorrow won’t fit in six months, so who cares if it doesn’t last forever, especially if it’s been covered in mud, food, finger paint, and baby sick in the meantime?
The free market provides for everyone, and that includes those of the lowest incomes. Primark allows people to buy new clothes for their children rather than rely on the embarrassment of hand-me-downs or the stigma of charity shops.
Our third group of shoppers have more humble intentions yet and should be held up as heroes: the just plain bored. Three months stuck at home staring at the same four walls is enough to turn even the most ardent minimalist into an impulse shopper. And the economy depends on them.
Businesses of all sizes have suffered under the coronavirus restrictions, especially those that cannot rely on an online presence, such as Primark. Without people getting off the sofa, putting down Amazon next-day delivery, and hitting the high streets, thousands of retailers across the country will go under, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.
Primark is the free market in action, and it’s interesting to note that the sneering replies didn’t comment on videos of round-the-block queues for the Nike store on Oxford Street, which had a queue as long as any Primark. Nor did they come when IKEA reopened a few weeks ago. People expressed surprise that so many members of the public were willing to go shopping for so-called non-essential items when the virus threat still loomed large, but the tone of those criticising Primark shoppers was noticeably different.
A tone that was lacking from the response to queues at Bicester village, which showed a worrying lack of any social distancing measures unlike those from Oxford Street. What is it about the throngs of shoppers at a designer outlet in Oxfordshire that didn’t draw derision like the orderly queues in northern high streets and Oxford Street?
Condescension won’t save the high street or the economy, but Primark shoppers might.