Primark still doesn't have a website. Will a third lockdown change that?

It's been a terrible 10 months not to have e-commerce, but is it enough to change their business model?

Primark
Primark Oxford Street Credit: Getty Images

There was a sombre mood across England on Tuesday morning when we woke up to the news that lockdown would likely last until March. But spare a thought for the executives at Primark who – as well as knowing they would have no possible revenue stream until the spring – also watched their parent company’s share prices tumble faster than any other on the stock exchange. 

Almost uniquely among British brands, Primark has a website to browse on but no e-commerce wing. This means that now English stores are closed, 57 percent of Primark’s retail operations globally are shut – and depending on how European governments react to this new strain in the coming weeks, it could well be more. 

It goes without saying that this has been a very difficult year for the brand. Primark lost £800 million in the UK in the first lockdown and £430 million in November - and in-between many of the most important retail areas of the country have been living under Tier 4 restrictions. Notably, Tier 4 began in London the week before Christmas – aka the most lucrative few days of the year.

A print dress, £15, from Primark's latest collection

Yet Primark’s customer base is still very strong, as evidenced by the enormous queues in front of many of its 153 stores in June when non-essential retail was allowed to reopen. In Birmingham, hundreds lined up from 4am; in London crowds began gathering at around 6am and a scrum had formed at the door by lunchtime. To prevent this from happening a second time, Primark kept certain stores open overnight the day after the November lockdown ended.

Although however big and enthusiastic your returning crowd is (and one look at the pictures proves that they were) none of those shoppers could possibly make up for multiple months without a single sale in England, Scotland or Wales. Yes, the coronavirus has hastened the need for brands to get online, but many people – particularly those missing Primark – are asking why the brand has waited so long to launch an e-commerce site. 

Some commentators believe their business model made more sense than it would first appear. “Before the pandemic, certain players didn’t embrace online due to the health of their physical retail portfolio with headroom to grow through store expansion,” says Anita Balchandani, a partner at McKinsey & Company. “You have to remember that behind the scenes, the operational cost of fulfilling online orders is high. This is particularly true in categories where items are low value – it is very difficult to make an order under £30 stack up when consumer willingness to pay for delivery is low and returns are free.”

Queues in the rain the day before the November lockdown Credit: Getty Images

But the pandemic will end one day, and hopefully reasonably soon. For a brand like Primark, which has expensive real estate across the country and exclusively sells low-cost clothing, does it make sense to build an entire e-commerce business just in time for restrictions to ease? Even if the pandemic continues past the spring, non-essential retail is likely to reopen once a high-enough percentage of the population has been vaccinated. Primark’s business model was working well in 2019, could those days return again? 

The answer is: probably not. The biggest problem Primark faces now isn't the pandemic but the fact customer behaviour has fundamentally changed. According to McKinsey, even those of us who rarely shopped online for clothes before 2020 now make 80 percent of our fashion purchases from the sofa. Yes, those numbers will decrease once the world opens up again, but a lot of customers have been surprised to discover how easy and convenient online shopping is, and are likely to keep clicking for clothes. 

The switch towards digital is not just a consequence of shops being closed,” says Balchandani. “Customers today start their journey online, so brands that have no e-commerce risk losing them to another competitor, particularly since 40 percent of fashion is bought online. Yes, the pandemic has been a difficult time to not to have a website, but post-pandemic, retaining and acquiring customers will be the main reason to invest in one.”

Primark's boarded-up stores Credit: Getty Images

Although moving a brand like Primark from a store-only model to one with a strong e-commerce site requires more than just logistics. If low-cost companies like Primark want to make money from online, they need customers to buy in bulk or return to the site regularly. Selling one shopper a few £3 T-shirt on their website is pointless in a way that it isn't in-store, so they will need to either move into multi-packs, amend their pricing or attract more trend-based returning customers through Instagram. On the other hand, going online means they can sell goods out of season and also test a wider range of products without taking up retail space. 

If I had to guess, I think Primark will have an e-commerce website by the end of this year, but unlike rivals such as Shein and Boohoo, they will use it as a way of attracting new shoppers and tempting them to come in-store. As those 4am June queues show, Primark has a very loyal and determined customer base who will no doubt leap at the chance to buy their wares 24-hours a day.  

Will Primark ever sell clothes online? Share your view in the comments section below