Big Primark Challenge: What we got for £50
How did mother and daughter Mary and Emma-Louise Johnston fare at the high street bargain-lovers' paradise when they were on a budget?
‘I got a pair of trousers like the ones worn by a newsreader’
Retired journalist Mary Johnston (69) has four grown-up children, Simon, Emma-Louise, Peter and Lucy, and lives with her husband Pete in north Belfast. She says:
For anybody on a budget, Primark's just got to be the go-to store. A poor girl's way to dress like you're rich.
I hadn't been in Primark for years, although it was great when my now adult children were kids.
However, when challenged to buy myself an entire outfit including shoes, for £50, I truthfully thought it a challenge too far.
Here I was joining the 'haul and try on' crowd as seen on YouTube.
Now for anybody young and a size 8, 10 or 12, it must be shopping heaven.
They've copies of absolutely everything, fresh off the catwalk at every fashion show worth its salt, available at ridiculously low prices.
Fans are going crazy for their Gucci style Beetle bags, a snip at £7. That's £1,200 less than the real thing! For someone my age, though, who's almost three stone overweight, not remotely granny chic and very conscious of the 'mutton dressed as lamb' school of thought, when I first went in, I thought it frankly wasn't going to work.
I no longer do dresses but stick firmly to trousers and all I could see was rails and rails of ultra skinny trousers, leggings and jeggings, all total no-nos.
Then I spotted voluminous black and white, ankle skimming, light-weight culottes which I thought might be a possibility with a simple black top, until I tried them on and they instantly added another two stone.
Best suited to someone tall and slender, so that was me out. Of course, there are sad rags as well as glad rags, but each to their own.
The selection of tops was mind-blowing, with everything from warm winter jumpers in every conceivable colour and style, to springtime shirts in lightweight cotton; flannel check cowboy shirts, cardigans, boleros and cardi coats and puffer jackets that weighed a few ounces but looked really cosy, trim and cute.
All very well and good, but I had to get the basic trousers before I could proceed. And then, there they were.
And I spotted these, or a pair that looked exactly like them, on an ITV newsreader this week. Check me out.
After I'd collected about five items, I went back to the door to pick up a basket and got stuck in; a variety of tops to go with my trousers, cardigans, a gorgeous grey sweater with a white blouse underneath that sadly didn't match, boots, bags and scarves. Then off to the changing rooms, where it was eight items max, so I had to choose carefully.
OMG! Here's when my body dysmorphia really set in. Between the confined space and the ensuing struggle to get undressed and dressed, the heat was soon making me feel extremely uncomfortable.
Anyway, as soon as I tried on my big check trews with a plain black crew neck, things started to improve.
These trousers are such a flattering cut. I'd been asked if I could choose an outfit that could be tweaked to carry it through for the evening as well, so added a slinky long sleeve top.
Relieved to leave the changing room, I then embarked on selecting shoes and a wrap and a clutch bag and for the first time in my life, bought cheap jewellery.
What a choice. If bling was my thing, I'd have been spoiled for choice but I opted for cheap, very cheap and cheerful simple necklaces that perfectly complemented my outfit.
What an experience it was Primark shopping.
Forget what I thought about it only being suitable for young size 8s. I swear anybody could get kitted out in-store.
They do sizes 4 to 20 to suit every shape. As long as you're not offended by static from some of the fabrics, all's good.
I only wish I was in the market for workout gear, as they have you covered, well, where it matters, and I wish I had pierced ears so I could dazzle in blinginess."
What Mary spent:
- Trendy check trousers (fabric feels really good) £13
- Piano sleeve top (for evening tweak) £10
- Supersoft crew neck £5
- Black patent stiletto court shoes £6 (reduced from £10)
- Nude woven wrap scarf £6
- Pleated snake clutch bag £6
- Rose gold daytime necklace £2
- Rose gold evening necklace £3
'Some of it does look cheap... but a lot of it doesn't'
Emma-Louise Johnston (40) lives in Maghera with husband Jonathan Crawford and their three children Emily (6), JJ (4) and two-year-old Lucy. She says:
I had my faux snob head on as I traipsed in to Primark's famous Bank Buildings in Belfast city centre. I hadn't visited the store in a long time and was concerned I might not live up to the challenge. Well, I was pleasantly surprised and more than managed to spend the £50 budget ... and that was before I even got stuck into their sportswear, kids' clothes or hair and beauty products. (That'll do for another day).
Everything is just so cheap and yes, some of it looks it, but a lot of it doesn't. When mixed and matched well, I would defy anyone to conclusively say what was a Primark product and what wasn't.
There was a vast choice of daytime clothing to choose from and some great coats reduced to next to nothing. I originally opted for a wax 'Barbour' style jacket (which I may still get) before picking up a checked woollen coat with what felt like an angora wool bright red jumper to go underneath. The jeans were a bit harder to get right.
Many of them aren't a great shape and unfortunately they didn't have the body sculpt jeans in my size ... but the couple of sizes they did have in those looked great.
I went for a high-waisted pair of black jeans for £13 which fitted really well and got a pair of boots reduced from £16 to, wait for it ... £3. I couldn't believe it.
They even have velvet ankle platform boots that closely mimic Miu Miu boots that cost £615. Primark's are £16. Not as high, but then neither is the price.
I remember loving Primark's jewellery and getting some fabulous pieces in the past - real gems ... not actual real gems but hidden gems. I was slightly disappointed with what was on offer now, but pleased with the bright red tassel earrings I ended up with.
During my shopping trip I spoke to a few staff members and asked questions about sizes, colours etc; I have to say most weren't overly pleasant and a few were too busy having a laugh and a chat which involved very colourful language, to help any customers. One, however, was especially helpful and warm, so that restored my faith.
I found it more difficult to get an evening-style top and thought the material and cut of some that I tried on was rather poor but overall I was happy with my choices. I went to the tills feeling like a real bargain buff. The cashier told me I was an amateur, as she had managed to get an entire outfit for £1.50. That's not a typo - £1.50. A dress reduced to £1 and shoes reduced to 50p.
On the one hand, I think it's great that people can get their hands on such bargains and those who don't have a large disposable income can enjoy the pleasure of being fabulously fashionable whilst thrifty.
However, I wonder how can they do this? How can they charge so little and still make a profit? On their website Primark dedicates a whole section to their Ethics. Both 'People' and the 'Planet'.
They say: "The welfare of the people who make products for Primark matters.
"Whether they're making T-shirts in Bangladesh, socks in Turkey or jewellery in India, we expect wages to be fair and working conditions safe. Primark does not own factories. We require every supplier and factory to commit to meeting internationally recognised standards."
They also speak about the work of Primark's Environmental Sustainability team; how raw materials such as cotton are sourced, the environmental impact of manufacturing processes in factories, the efficiency of stores and their commitment to recycle wherever possible. This is all positive and it's good to know, but I still have that underlying angst... How can they do it? Who is benefiting most and at whose expense?
Primark has proved so popular and profitable, it now reaches right across Europe and into the USA. Preemark or Prymark, there's obviously a huge market for low cost, accessible, fashion like this and who am I to argue."
What Emma-Louise spent
- Woollen coat £25 reduced to £10
- Black jeans £13
- Hat £3
- Boots £16 reduced to £3
- Red crew neck £10 reduced to £5
- Red evening top £10
- Red tassel earrings £2