James Moore: Primark has the formula M&S lost

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The Independent Online

Here's an example of what you get if you run a retailer that doesn't seem to require that its chief executives devote lots of time to getting photographed with Twiggy or Dannii Minogue and instead gives customers what they want, when they want it. Primark doesn't seem to require ads with the budgets of small films, or even much publicity. It's certainly not going to get the egg that M&S's Mylene Klass dropped (see the latter's latest lavish production on YouTube) all over its face by contrast to its bigger, posher high-street rival, which failed to order enough woolies when it was cold.

That fact shone through in the numbers put out by Primark's owner, Associated British Foods. ABF's earnings would have been sweet without the discount clothes retailer. Its sugar business has been doing rather well in its own right.

But Primark stands out. Despite warnings of challenging conditions on the High Street and especially in the eurozone, where it has lots of shops, Primark is still growing same-store sales while adding new outlets at a rapid pace.

Perhaps this is as much because of the economic conditions as it is in spite of them. Why pay Twiggy's fees for M&S when you can get serviceable undies at a fraction of the cost from the discounter?

This is a question being asked in a far wider array of homes than the lower income households that might once have been seen as Primark's prime customer base.

Those who wince at some of its more controversial children's fashions, or its sourcing of goods from the Third World (it is hardly alone there), are increasingly finding themselves in the minority.

Is it any wonder? Yesterday figures showed that public sector borrowing in March suffered a setback. Tax revenues are not keeping pace with public spending and economists are warning that there is worse to come, given the widespread scepticism about the Office For Budgetary Responsibility's growth forecasts.

Things are going to be tough for the next few years, even if you take a relatively optimistic view of Britain's economic prospects. They may be downright grim if the unsettling news from the eurozone continues.

Incomes are still failing to keep pace with this country's stubbornly high inflation and the consumer squeeze is a fact of life for everyone outside the handful lucky enough to be paying the top rate of tax (and now benefitting from the Chancellor's prezzie of a 5p tax cut). No wonder ABF's discounter has found itself in such a groove. Like it or not, we are all Primark now.