Board Berlin's U9 underground train and you'll soon see why it's nicknamed the "Primark Line". The closer you get to the terminus in Steglitz, the higher the concentration of brown paper bags from the clothing retailer known in its home market as Penneys.
From humble beginnings in Dublin, Primark is now a European giant. "Primania" may sound like an American wrestling tournament but is, the retailer assures us, the euphoric effect its fast and affordable fashion has on consumers across eight European countries. On Thursday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will get a blast of Primania – and screaming, swooning teens – when he cuts the ribbon at Berlin's second Primark store on Alexanderplatz.
What Beatlemania was in the 1960s, Primania is for the modern teenager. Their primeval need for cheap jeans has been well documented at Primark openings elsewhere in
. But it has touched a cultural nerve in
. Primark’s runaway success here proves that, even in the home turf of discounters
, it is possible to sell snow to Eskimos – particularly if the Eskimos like €2.50 T-shirts.
Primark's rise in Germany has all the drama of Game of Thrones. For years the country's low-end fashion scene was ruled by King H&M of Sweden, his outlets as ubiquitous in the German high street as gum-stained paving. Looking on were Spain's Princess Zara and the crown prince C&A.
Bestriding the bargain basement was the cheap and cheerless home-grown retailer Kik. Its notoriously sweaty sweaters were a running gag with one Berlin cabaret troupe. For years they mocked Kik sweaters' unbeatable blend of "60 per cent polyester and 60 per cent nylon". This week, the troupe's new show had no mention of "Kik". Instead a character clutched a canvas bag with the logo "I *heart* Primark".
Owned by Associated British Foods, Penneys/Primark has hit the big time in Europe's largest retail market by offering German shoppers their two favourite retail drugs – fashionable and cheap –in one potent dose.
Its success was far from a given. From Gap to Marks & Spencers, many foreign retailers have come here with great intentions and left again with their tail between their legs. Primark, local analysts say, succeeded thanks to good market research, massive outlets and a steady stream of merchandise suited to the flat fashion trends of the internet age.
"Unlike 20 years ago, young people in the countryside wear the same clothes as city-dwellers and for them, city or country, Primark is a cult brand," said Jörg Nowicki of trade magazine Textilwirtschaft. "For a young German to be seen with a Primark bag is not a problem, unlike being seen with a Kik bag."
Primark's push into Germany began in 2009 in the northern port city of Bremen. Other cities followed, from Frankfurt to Cologne. Store number 14 opens in Stuttgart in the autumn. Next year, the company is going stateside.
Berlin's first store two years ago was page three news in the best-selling Bild tabloid. A picture of a mob outside the store was headlined: "In case you're asking yourself where your daughter's spending her pocket money ..."
When the doors open on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz branch next Thursday – a sprawling 5,000sq m space employing 700 people – shoppers will find fashion so fast it manages to play both sides of the pitch simultaneously: “Deutschland” pyjama sets for €6 and “
So Over It” T-shirts for €7.
The rise and rise of Primark has attracted the attention of the German media, in particular consumer magazines such as Ökotest. A set of Primark children's pyjamas it examined last year, though prone to stretching, got the overall rating of "satisfactory". But a pair of children's jeans, though made of good material, contained traces of the toxic chemical aneline. The jeans scored an "unsatisfactory" rating as the only trousers with no label of origin – a poor signal, Ökotest said, given the ongoing controversy over the working conditions in its suppliers.
Primark's successes in Germany – turnover rose a reported 22 per cent in 2012 – are always matched with critical reports about its labour rights record. Last October ZDF public television visited Bangladesh and agreed with other critics that the cost of cheap clothes was being paid by workers who could least afford it.
“Someone else is paying for these [cheap clothes]: our workers with their blood sweat and tears,” said Nazma Akter, a Bangladeshi union worker, to ZDF. “Our women are undernourished because they cannot afford enough food.”
In a distressing scene, seamstresses interviewed by ZDF refused to believe that their hard work was being sold so cheaply as disposable fashion. The TV station’s requests for permission to film in one of Primark’s Bangladesh suppliers were declined. The company said it insisted all workers in supply companies were paid the local minimum wage – €30 a month.
Last week’s reports of “SOS” labels in Primark clothes prompted a furious discussion in the German media, with the leading
daily running pro- and contra- pieces on whether to boycott the chain. But German retail analysts say Primark’s customers are either unconcerned or unaware of the bad publicity.
"Many don't even consume the media where the critical reports appear," said Mr Nowicki of Textilwirtschaft magazine. "If they're shopping on a Saturday afternoon for a party dress and see one in Primark for €10 they'll just block out everything else and snap it up."
The UK campaign group War on Want has been a consistent critic of Primark's business practices. After a slow start, it says, the retailer's record is improving. It says the April 2013 collapse of a Bangladesh textile factory, killing more than 1,100 workers, was a watershed. Primark was one of the first to pay compensation and sign up to a new Bangladesh safety accord.
The UK campaigners hope the company will now use its huge influence in the industry to fight further shortcomings in its suppliers’ health and safety records. With a long way to go to improve conditions at Primark suppliers, War on Want campaigners are unimpressed by Enda Kenny’s Primark premiere on Thursday.
"One can understand perfectly why the political establishment wants to promote the success of national champions, but it should be careful about endorsing industries where workers' rights abuses are still rife," said Mr Jeff Powell, WOW policies and campaigns manager. "It's not our place to tell [Mr Kenny] what to do. But there are not insignificant reputational risks from being seen to endorse the expansion of fast fashion."