Who International Retailers Hire to Crack the US Market

When Primark was plotting its US entry in 2014, among the first people the Dublin, Ireland-based retailer hired was a head of human resources.

The company went with Susan Hoffman, a 30-year veteran in the field, mostly at PepsiCo and BJ’s Wholesale, to head up what’s known internally as the people and culture team. In the US, that title carried extra weight: Hoffman was tasked with helping a leader brought in from Dublin navigate the “geographically complex” and “incredibly diverse” US market, said John Hadeed, who succeeded Hoffman in the role after she retired in 2021.

“Those first hires have to be rooted in what’s critical to running the business and understanding the local market,” he said. “We want to show up as Primark in the US, we don’t want to show up as some American version of Primark.”

Primark is one of a growing number of European and Asian retailers in the midst of major US rollouts. The Irish retailer opened roughly a dozen stores there last year, with plans to reach 60 locations by 2026. Spain’s Zara and Mango and Japan’s Uniqlo are also expanding their footprint; the latter is doubling its North American store count with 20 new locations this year.

The US is the biggest apparel market, and its consumers have proven more resilient than in other major economies. But breaking through is hard; what works in a retailer’s home country doesn’t always translate to an American audience. For every H&M or Zara, which have operated successfully in the country for decades, there’s many more Uniqlos, which have needed multiple attempts to build their US business.

Many companies struggle to get the balance right between staying true to their brand DNA and catering to American consumers’ tastes. They either lose touch with their brand identity by trying too hard to fit in or they micromanage from afar, expecting to replicate identical concepts, price points, sizing and marketing. This approach can alienate local staff and customers.

Who brands hire when entering a new market makes all the difference in getting the execution right, experts say. Local talent is crucial for understanding geographical nuances – consumers have different tastes and preferred ways of shopping depending on whether they live in New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles. Expats are a crucial part of the plan as well, helping to keep a brand’s secret sauce intact, even as it’s adapted to a new place.

Both sides need to “meet in the middle and have an idea exchange,” said Damian Chiam, a partner at Burō, a creative and marketing executive search agency.

If they botch the rollout, brands may not get a second chance.

US shoppers tend to be “hot and cold” regarding “images you put in your ads,” said Greg Portell, senior partner and global markets lead at business consultancy Kearney. They can react “very quickly and very punishingly if they don’t feel like you are taking their cultural issues to heart.”

Approaching the US Market

Most retailers follow variations on the same strategy for entering a new market, whether it’s European companies entering the US, or American retailers expanding internationally: send a few expats to set up operations and hire a local team. Within three to five years, the locals take over and the expats depart.

The US presents some challenges that are less often encountered when opening stores in Belgium or South Korea. The country is on its own scale in terms of size, both geographically and its population. Consumers have diverse tastes, both because the population itself is diverse, and due to regional and cultural differences.

“What makes the US different is that it’s not really one market,” Portell said. “So bringing in an expat who can understand the entire market is a challenge.”

Uniqlo seems to be learning this lesson after its first few rocky attempts. In its initial attempt to build a US business in the 2000s, it stuck too closely to how it operated in Japan, including sizing, silhouettes and store design. The company has taken a different approach this time, with parent company Fast Retailing announcing it would ramp up recruitment outside Japan, aiming for non-Japanese employees to make up 80 percent of management and 40 percent of its executive officers by fiscal 2030.

There are legal and ethical reasons some companies may not want to be as explicit as Uniqlo about using country of origin as a factor in hiring decisions. However, the broader point is to balance the scales of demographic expertise and prioritise transferable skills like curiosity and adaptability, experts say.

“The person needs to be able to read the signals and adapt quickly, as opposed to coming in with a pre-planned playbook they expect to execute,” Portell said.

Building the Team

To get started, most large retailers need a point person. Many companies might tap recruiters to hire a “US market lead,” typically someone with a background in merchandising and sales who can advise on consumer preferences, including size, silhouettes and price points, said Portell. The next local hire is typically a supply chain expert who can develop the strategy for sourcing, logistics, and assortment to ensure the infrastructure supports any US-market product tweaks.

After hiring its human resources leader, Primark developed a US senior leadership team of six executives — an even split between expats and local leaders. The retailer’s president, commercial manager and head of retail are all Primark lifers “who have the skills, history and experience with the brand that we need to transfer to our American colleagues,” Hadeed said.

A Primark location at the Sawgrass Mills mall in Florida. (Primark/Courtesy)

“Early expats need that core of knowledge of what is important to the brand … those things around commerciality and retail operations that are our real differentiators,” he said. “They also have to be guardians for what Primark is at its core in our culture.”

The other three US leads — Primark’s head of marketing, its communications lead and the VP of people and culture (Hadeed) — are all locals who help the brand understand the nuances of speaking to the US consumer and recruiting talent.

Wherever they came from, all six leaders started their careers on a shop floor as hourly retail associates, which is “the hallmark of what makes [Primark] special,” Hadeed said.

The biggest mistake companies make in building teams in new locales is to overlook the importance of “onboarding and culture,” Chiam said.

At Primark, every retail leader, from store managers to department leads, undergoes an intensive training and onboarding course called an “induction,” lasting 8 to 16 weeks, Hadeed said. Primark also embeds “coaches” into its new US locations to train and support staff for several months after each store opens.

“Training is one of those things that looks on paper like a very easy thing to cut from an expense perspective,” Hadeed said. “But you always pay for it in the end, so we’ve really invested heavily in it.”

Training and mentorship programmes are becoming a key hiring and retention tool in retail stores in the US as companies continue to grapple with the ongoing labour shortage. Ensuring their sales associates are engaged and can serve as brand ambassadors will be critical for long-term success, said Matthew Katz, managing partner at SSA & Company, a global management consulting firm.

“The adage is right, you have one chance to make a first impression,” he said. “In the past, you could make a mistake, and it wouldn’t be as visible as it is today. But customers are very willing to share their stories in a way that moves pretty quickly and it’s really hard to recover.”

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