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While value sales of apparel in France continued to stagnate in 2012, the imminent entry of Primark and Topshop suggests that all is not lost. With strong demand for low-cost offerings that do not compromise on style, it is evident that France can offer fast fashion brands not just a glamorous marketing tool but also a valuable retail market.
With emerging markets featuring prolifically in the plans of apparel brands charting international growth, France is rarely an obvious choice as a sales base. Rather, its established position as a fashion hub and the home of haute couture has made it a valuable branding initiative.
The equity of a French heritage seems to precede the country itself. This is particularly true in Asia Pacific, which is set to account for over 70% of total apparel value growth over 2012-2017. It is telling that upmarket French fashion brand agnès b operates 53 shops in Europe compared to 169 in Asia (excluding Japan, where the figure is 244).
Asia’s resident Francophiles have made setting up shop in France an important move for non-French brands. In 2012, France was the leading destination in Europe for tourists from the BRICs, and this has encouraged a number of international brands to plant their flagship stores in Paris – for example Uniqlo on Boulevard Haussmann, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, to name just a few. For these brands, their French flagship serves as a large-scale marketing tool which embodies their brand vision while capitalising on the city’s glamour factor.
Primark, on the other hand, has chosen to open its debut store in the Grand Littoral shopping centre in Marseille, with a second store planned in Dijon. This choice of location suggests that the brand is eschewing the tourist-magnet flagship store trend and views local consumers as a valuable sales base for its low-priced products.
With consumer morale and subsequent discretionary spending at a low on account of the fragile macroeconomic outlook, Primark’s offering could not be more apt for local consumers, particularly teenagers and young adults.
This applies equally to British fast fashion label Topshop, which has already built a cult like following among young fashionistas from New York to Hong Kong. The brand is set to make its French debut in partnership with venerable department store Galeries Lafayette. While the initial shop-in-shop locations will be in Paris, there is an open opportunity for further expansion, leveraging the retailer’s nationwide coverage. The move mimics the strategy used in the US, where Topshop recently announced its decision to extend its partnership with Nordstrom to a further 28 locations, bringing its total up to 42.
There is evidently strong demand for low-priced apparel in France. The shift towards thrift is well documented in the French apparel rankings, with the top five apparel brands in France being economy labels, including Kiabi, H&M and La Halle. French grocery retailers such as Carrefour and Auchan have also been strengthening their apparel offering.
At the same time, luxury brands have managed to hold their own among domestic consumers. Despite the still unfavourable economic climate, more consumers have been open to purchasing designer apparel goods. As a result, volume sales of designer apparel in France grew by 1% in 2012, a stronger performance than that of the previous year. In general, local fashionistas preferred to purchase one luxury item instead of buying several less pricey articles.
For British brands like Topshop and Primark, geographical proximity makes the French opportunity too good to pass up. However, their entry highlights an important facet of the market – that amidst this market polarisation there is potential for fast fashion brands which are able to complement the high-low mixing trend which is pervading contemporary dressing habits.