Primark takes on big names and wins large slice of market

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The Independent Online

Primark, for years the ugly duckling of the fashion sector, is set to cement its new-found swan status this year by becoming one of the UK's four biggest womenswear retailers.

The clothing group, which is part of the Associated British Foods conglomerate, is tipped, in a new report by the retail consultants Verdict Research, to overtake Debenhams and New Look.

Primark's ability to stock catwalk designs at a decimal point of the prices charged by top couture houses has earned it the nickname of Prada-mark and Pri-Marni among the fashion cognoscenti. Such renowned shopping fiends as Colleen McLoughlin have been spotted sporting Primark bags, and even Vogue has featured its pieces.

Verdict singles out Primark as a prime example of the "new breed of mass market retailer" that is managing to buck the toughest conditions for womenswear retailing since the turn of the century. Primark, the report claims, has all the attributes needed to thrive amid cut-throat competition, from insanely cheap prices to shopper-friendly stores.

"It offers fast fashion in bright, contemporary stores, in locations that are convenient to women shoppers," Maureen Hinton, an analyst at Verdict, said.

The consultancy is predicting that Primark's share of the womenswear market will jump to 3.6 per cent during this year from 2.7 per cent in 2005, after an aggressive quest for new space saw it swallow the bulk of the old Littlewoods store portfolio.

The deal to acquire 41 Littlewoods outlets added 1.5m sq ft to Primark's trading space, increasing its total UK footprint to 4m sq ft. ABF's most recent trading update showed Primark grew its like-for-like sales by 6 per cent in the half-year to March and made operating profits of £71m on sales of £531m.

Despite even that rate of growth, Primark is still half the size of Next, which is in third place with 7.3 per cent, but ahead of New Look and Debenhams, which are equal fifth with 3.4 per cent share. Marks and Spencer, which has increased its share for the first time in four years to 12 per cent, remains the doyenne of ladies' clothing, with Sir Philip Green's Arcadia still breathing down its neck at 9.2 per cent.

Ms Hinton warns retailers that, in what is expected to be the toughest year for women's clothing sales for six years, they will need to do more than just cut prices. "Retailers that focus on product design, innovation, brand differentiation and shopping experience will thrive," she says. Verdict predicts the womenswear market will grow by 1.8 per cent in 2006 to £17.7bn.

Primark is one of a new generation of value retailers that have put pressure on even the biggest high street names. Peacocks, New Look, TK Maxx and the supermarkets' ranges have all become mainstream players in recent years, forcing M&S to play by the new rules to survive. One of the biggest driving factors in M&S's recovery has been its new, cheaper clothing lines.