(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Primark opens its first US store next year, it will be with the help of an army of its European fans. The cheap fashion chain doesn't have an online shop, and doesn't advertise. Instead, Primark will use its own shoppers to help sell the brand to fellow fashion lovers by posting photographs of themselves wearing their latest purchases on Primania, the company's new social media site. Less than a year old, Primania now gets 300,000 visitors a week. Shoppers' comments, often complete with the price tag, are translated into six languages to reflect the group's spread across Europe.
Like several other high-street names, the brand is blurring the lines between publishing, shopping and social media in a bid to get closer to its customers.
Primania is a simpler version of online fashion retailer Asos's Fashion Finder, which runs magazine-style features - a recent one was "What to wear for your graduation" - and has 160,000 registered users. Both supply a constant stream of street-fashion trends, styling ideas and fun photos to their own editorial teams, who then mix shoppers' ideas and selfies with fashion tips, new product information and other content.
Asos also publishes a glossy magazine with circulation of 470,000 - more than Glamour, Grazia or even the giveaway Stylist. A digital version, available in French and German, and in US and Australian editions, goes to another 100,000 shoppers. More than 30 staff at Asos's headquarters work on editorial content, and there are editors in each international territory the digital magazine hits.
John Bason, finance director of Primark's parent company, Associated British Foods, says: "Showing off your bargains is a characteristic of Primark shopping. Before social media was big it was all word of mouth - people saying, 'I like your outfit. Where did you get it?' That helped Primark grow. With social media, word of mouth is increasingly powerful."
Alice Spencer of consultantcy Brand Union says shopping is no longer just about buying, but lifestyle: "Post-recession consumers want to hear (from) brands. They want to know what they think, where they stand and what their beliefs are. In a digital world, people no longer go into a shop, see something and decide to buy it. It is much more about buying into a lifestyle."
With more than half of female consumers now starting each fashion shopping trip via a smartphone or tablet computer, eye-catching content generates sales. That content might be exclusive footage of favoured bands, celebrity interviews, "how-to" guides or fashion tips. The aim is to become the shoppers' friend, interested in everything they love, whether it's in stock or not.
Asos editorial director Melissa Dick, who used to be online editor of women's magazine Elle, says she left traditional mags because she realised they weren't keeping up with the way young women consumed information on lifestyle and fashion.
For young women, she says, magazines "aren't democratic or collaborative enough. There has to be more dialogue. You can't just broadcast as message; women want to check out how their peers are dressing or behaving, and find their views and reviews of an item."
Asos, she says, is even experimenting with using shoppers' pictures instead of model shots to illustrate some products in the transactional part of the site.
Shoppers also wanted to be able to buy what they saw with a couple of clicks, share their opinions and generally be part of the action. They wanted original information, ideas or pictures that could be shared with their friends. "Young women are on social media every 30 seconds," says Dick. "We are giving them content they can share, and increase their social currency."
Upmarket online fashion store Net-A-Porter is also trying publishing to bring in sales with Porter, a bi-monthly glossy magazine which shoppers can scan using a smartphone app to link to the shopping site. Not everything in the magazine is available on the Net-A-Porter website, but the firm promises to help shoppers find a way to buy most items, with links to brands' own websites or a concierge service.
Magazines and newspapers are trying to fight back, however. Grazia has launched an iPad app which readers can use to buy featured products, and Vogue owner Conde Nast has also been experimenting with shoppable websites.
Some of the biggest high-street retailers - Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and John Lewis - are old hands in the magazine business, but even they are making efforts to reach out to customers. Waitrose now has a TV channel on its website, with cooking ideas, "how-to" videos, celebrity interviews and cookery demos by famous chefs. Online recipes from TV shows can be quickly converted into a shopping list of items that can be bought online.
Marks & Spencer has added a "style and living" section to its website, offering magazine-style content including editors' product picks, trend suggestions and celebrity interviews. It has hired new staff, including former Times and Financial Times fashion writer Nicola Copping, and the 20-strong team includes specialist editors for categories such as beauty and womenswear.
Some say the new-look M&S website is more a hindrance that a help to its shoppers - mainly older women, who might be more focused on making purchases than the twentysomethings of Asos or Primark. Sales growth through the website has not been good, although marketing director Patrick Bousquet Chavanne says style and living is the fastest-growing section of the website and accounts for close to half its traffic. He says shoppers are 24% more likely to make a purchase if they've read about it.
Dick reckons all retailers will have to adapt to the new world of digital sharing: "For a shop to become a brand, it has to have a relationship with its customers - and the best way to do that is through other customers."
Primark's Primania website is less than a year old but gets 300,000 visitors a week. Social media makes word of mouth 'increasingly powerful', says finance director John Bason.