More Limited Opportunities

BY Antony Karabus

During the past few years, U.S. and international retailers have flocked to Canada in the hunt for top-line growth as store portfolios matured in the United States and there were fewer opportunities for expansion. In fact, many U.S. retailers considered Canada to be an extension of their domestic businesses due to the similarities and close proximity to their home offices.

Aside from the well-publicized issues experienced by Target and Big Lots in Canada in 2013, the Canadian retail industry suddenly slowed in 2013, with comparable-store sales only up 0.3% over 2012. (This included all sectors other than food and auto, according to Retail Council of Canada’s “Retail Fast Facts Report” in February 2014.)

From all accounts, Canada has moved lower in growth priorities for U.S. and international retailers in the past few months — particularly given its saturated market in most retail sectors. Looking at the discount broadline sector, there isn’t much opportunity for a major new entrant given the dominance of Walmart and Costco in the Canadian market, coupled with the 2013 launch of Target Canada and continued strong growth of TJX Canada.

Similarly, the strength of Dollarama in Canada and the recent growth of Dollar Tree following its entry into Canada by acquisition, make it unlikely for another extreme value chain to enter Canada on a large scale.

Even the Canadian food retail sector is hyper-competitive, with strong players (Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Overwaitea, Longos) in all key regions. This, coupled with the addition of significant growth in square footage in the past few years, makes it difficult for a new entrant of any scale.

In the drug sector, the recent sale of the leading Canadian national drug chain, Shoppers Drug Mart, to Loblaw, the leading Canadian food retailer, leaves the stronger regionals (Rexall, London Drugs, Pharmasave and Jean Coutu) as the key large independent players.

The recent deal announced for DSW to enter the Canadian market through the purchase of a 44% stake in the leading Canadian branded footwear retailer, Town Shoes Limited, is excellent. It follows the strategy employed by strategic buyers Best Buy and Dollar Tree when they entered Canada through the purchase of Canadian retailers Future Shop and Dollar Giant respectively, in contrast with the numerous other market entrants who have pursued a greenfield strategy.

However, the issues being experienced in Canada are not uniform across all sectors. There is still significant opportunity for new entrants in some sectors into the Canadian retail market, particularly in luxury and specialty apparel, where there is limited competition.

The anticipated arrival of Nordstrom and Saks will be welcomed by Canadians, as they are world-class retailers that Canadians know well from their shopping in the U.S. and from online purchasing.

Further, the existing number of choices in the Canadian luxury space is limited, with only two national chains — Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen — and a number of independent operators.

There is also significant opportunity in the fashion apparel, fast fashion, plus-size apparel, moderate women’s apparel and related sectors, as there are no clear owners of these sectors in Canada.

There will continue to be room for strong retailers to expand into Canada, provided they have a clear value proposition with a well-differentiated store and assortment offering. Canadians are experienced cross-border shoppers (cross-border shopping is a way of life for numerous Canadians). As such, they are well aware of pricing and have high expectations for U.S. chains opening in Canada. This sets a high bar for U.S. entrants into Canada, which has caused some well-known U.S. retailers to stub their toes on entry with prices and assortments that were out of line with their U.S. domestic stores, resulting in negative publicity and price modifications post launch.

Entrants into the Canadian retail industry need to be aware of the complexities of operating in Canada. These include a weaker Canadian dollar putting pressure on margins in a low inflationary environment, dual-language packaging needs and the higher distribution costs resulting from a small population in a large geographic area.

The higher inflationary costs coming out of China will continue to put pressure on input costs, not all of which can be passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices in a very competitive retail industry.

Also, the Canadian online retail sector has finally come of age and is going to continue to take market share from brick-and-mortar stores, putting further pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers in Canada. Last but not least, a solid understanding of the costs of doing business, the different nature of consumers and the widely different drivers of the regional economies in Canada are crucial to success.

Antony Karabus is CEO of Hilco Retail Consulting and has been advising Canadian and U.S. retailers for 25 years.

Despite a saturated market, there are still strong opportunities for luxury, fast fashion and plus-size apparel. But there isn’t much opportunity for major new entrants in the discount broadline sector. And the food retail sector is already hyper-competitive, with strong players.


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Verizon’s Retail Remake


Verizon Wireless has set itself an ambitious goal: to transform the in-store experience across its entire fleet of 1,700 company-owned stores.

In November, the company unveiled its “destination store” format, in Mall of America, Bloomington, Minn. More than about selling phones and other devices, the 9,000-sq.-ft. store is designed to help customers experience a more robust mobile life.

Designed by Chute Gerdeman, Columbus, Ohio, the Mall of America store features interactive lifestyle zones where customers can engage with specially trained associates and experience and learn about wireless gadgets, apps and tech gear in action. It features a dedicated workshop area where customers can learn about how to get the most out of a device and even take classes in front of a large touch-screen digital display.

Customers also can visit the “Customize It” zone and create colorful covers for their smartphones and personalize them with photos. A huge focal wall toward the back of the store allows customers to see themselves appear as avatar surfers, guitarists and more.

Verizon plans to open more destination stores in the next few years in strategic locations. The concept is part of a broader initiative that includes the overhaul of Verizon Wireless’ overall store portfolio, which is being revamped to the company’s “smart store” design. The core concept is similar to the destination format, with key elements fashioned for a more scalable implementation.

Domenico D’Ambrosio, executive director national retail operations for Verizon Wireless, spoke with Chain Store Age editor Marianne Wilson about the company’s new concepts and revamped retail experience.

As of May 1, how many Smart Stores are in operation?

We have over 100 Smart Stores now open across the United States, with several in various phases of construction, which will roll out soon.

Is the plan to eventually convert most of Verizon’s existing store base to the Smart Store concept?

Verizon Wireless has a goal to convert the entire fleet of 1,700-plus company-owned stores into Smart Stores.

What was the impetus for, and thinking behind, the launch of the new concept?

We are transforming the focus of our stores from selling devices to enabling customers to discover all that wireless technology can do for their mobile lifestyles.

All of our stores showcase our 4G LTE network and the various ways that wireless technology over our network can help customers do more based on their lifestyle needs, preferences and desires. It makes life easier and more fun. And from the business side, people can work smarter.

Our Destination Stores are visual playgrounds that showcase the power of our 4G LTE network around leading-edge gadgets, gear, devices and solutions.

We set the store up by Interactive Lifestyle Zones, which are designed to engage customers and introduce them to the latest wireless technology, showcasing how our portfolio of devices and accessories can enrich wireless customers’ lives.

For example, the ‘Get Fit’ zone features a working treadmill that in-store specialists will use to engage customers in a discussion about the latest wireless fitness gear.

Why did you decide to build a mock Destination Store prior to the real thing?

It allowed us to test a myriad of factors going into the whole concept, including the physical design, functionality, store flow, colors, customer friendliness and the zones before going live. We had some customers come as a focus group who were all under nondisclosures to give us their opinions. We built the store with the consumers in mind and from their input.

Is the Smart Store basically a scaled-down version of the Verizon Destination store?

Verizon Wireless Smart Stores are geared to showcase mobile lifestyles — such as fitness or music-focused lifestyles — and the devices and accessories that make these lifestyles a reality.

Smart Stores are not as fully equipped with interactive features, e.g., treadmills, music stations or life size game boards, as our Destination Stores. Smart Stores will, however, be staffed by expert, company-trained lifestyle zone specialists.

How did you decide to go with Chute Gerdeman for the store design?

We don’t discuss the rationale why we specifically work with a vendor. But I can tell you we were drawn to the experience, creativity and depth of team that Chute Gerdeman brought to the table. They listened to our needs, we listened to their counsel, and the project collaboration developed a successful launch for our Destination and Smart Stores.

What is your favorite part of the new Smart Store concept?

I like the Wireless Workshops because the customers take their knowledge to the next level. Through experience specialists, they learn that their devices can do more than they ever expected. It is truly a rewarding feeling when I watch them experience that ‘ah-ah moment.’

What do think is the main point of differentiation between Verizon stores (referring here to those with the new Smart Store elements) and other wireless stores?

While we can’t speak about what the other stores are doing, our business rationale is based on redefining the retail experience. In the past, people would come into a wireless store maybe once or twice a year with the sole purpose to upgrade their device when their contract ran out.

Our design and approach is to engage the customers with the essential elements that drive their mobile lifestyle.

What’s been the customer response so far?

It has been well received.

Based on our internal proprietary metrics, we see customers visiting more often, and spending time at the various zones. Also, the time to complete a transaction is quicker. Our Net Promoter Scores also have shown an increase too. [Net Promoter is a tool for measuring customer loyalty.] We can say that listening to our customers during our concept and focus group phase certainly helped.

How has the role of the store associate evolved with the new store concept? What type of training do store associates receive?

A good way to explain it is that we train and sell on a relationship basis versus a user’s manual approach.

The experience specialists have been trained to understand that customers have lifestyles they feel passionate about. We bring in experts from many fields, such as sports, to help sell the Get Fit products, and they share some interesting nuances with the specialists to get them to think differently and to hone in on the experience.

We also have the team train together in exercises and simulated environments so they have hands-on experience installing the products/accessories. This makes it easier for them to articulate the benefits and the ease of installation to the customer.

You joined Verizon in 1997. How has the business evolved since then?

We started off as a transactional business, and as I stated earlier, we only saw customers when they needed to upgrade their device or when their phone broke. Now they see the true value and power in their device and they come to learn about all the different things it can do. We now see customers regularly come in to check out what’s new. The best part is they are asking questions and want to learn more.

On a personal note, what’s your favorite app?

I like to listen to music, so I would say all of my music apps are my favorites. It is hard to pick just one.


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Hot Concepts & Coming Attractions

BY Marianne Wilson

Sweaty Betty

There’s a new high-end fashion activewear brand in town, and this one speaks with a British accent. London-based Sweaty Betty opened its first two U.S outposts last year, one in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and one in Greenwich, Conn. A third is expected to open in 2014.

With an aim “to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness,” Sweaty Betty covers all the bases, with clothing and accessories for yoga, dancing, spinning swimming, skiing, tennis and running — all under its own label. The goods are stylish and well made, featuring the latest in fabric technology. On-trend prints and quirky detailing help ratchet up the brand’s fashion quotient. Price points, on average, tend to run above lululemon athletica.

Sweaty Betty stores have an experiential bent, offering free fitness classes that can range from yoga and Pilates to dance and high-intensity training (many locations have dedicated studio spaces).

The company tailors stores to each location, sourcing props from the local area, even as it maintains its overall sporty British aesthetic. The SoHo store has an urban loft gym theme, with a focus on dance. Vintage gym equipment, authentic dance stage lighting and strong pops of color help set the mood. In a nod to the brand’s roots, the wallpaper in the fitting rooms features a graphic landscape of London, while vintage ornaments, including tea cups, flags and double decker buses, help accent the space.

Sweaty Betty founder and creative director Tamara Hill-Norton may be the brand’s best weapon. A fitness enthusiast, she has emerged as a respected figure for women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom, growing Sweaty Betty from a start-up in 1998 to a $40 million business. With 36 stores in the United Kingdom, Hill-Norton said in a recent interview that her home country has a potential for 50 to 60 stores maximum. The United States, she added, is a “massive market.”

John Varvatos

There aren’t too many retail brands that combine old-world craftsmanship and quality tailoring with a rock ’n’ roll aesthetic. Or that can lay claim to a downtown Manhattan flagship housed in a space formerly home to one of the world’s foremost punk clubs (CBGB). John Varvatos scores on both points.

The menswear company is named after its founder, a two-time winner of the CFDA’s prestigious Menswear Designer of the Year award and a veteran of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. He launched the brand in 2000, with a collection of tailored clothing and sportswear. It has since evolved into an entire lifestyle brand whose offerings now include eyewear; limited edition watches; skincare and fragrance; and a second line, Star USA, which has a more youthful vibe.

Most recently, John Varvatos has been growing in other ways. In February, the company opened in Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Toronto, and in March, it unveiled its third store in Manhattan, on the tony Upper East Side. It is set to open its first store in Texas, in the Houston Galleria, in late summer/early fall. A store in Beverly Hills is also expected by year-end. Specialty store concepts, including one for footwear, are rumored.

The retail push follows a change in ownership. In 2012, Lion Capital purchased a majority stake in John Varvatos Enterprises from VF Corp., with an eye to expanding its retail footprint. (Varvatos remains chairman and creative officer.)

Kate Spade Saturday

From clicks to brick-and-mortar, Kate Spade’s sassy little offshoot, Kate Spade Saturday, is poised for big things. More youthful and casual in its overall vibe and much more affordable in its price points, Kate Spade Saturday could eventually surpass its big sis in terms of overall store count.

The fledgling brand launched in March 2013, starting with a store in Tokyo and an e-commerce site in the United States, followed by a series of pop-ups. Currently, it operates four U.S. stores, in Los Angeles, New York City, Houston and a just-opened location in Honolulu, in addition to six stores in Japan. Reports have it looking for additional locations in New York and on the West Coast.

Targeting young women in their twenties, Kate Spade Saturday has an upbeat, playful aesthetic. The merchandise selection ranges from apparel and accessories to beauty products and home decor. Fashion-wise, the selection is modern and unfussy, with lots of bright colors and minimal details.

Store interiors are bright and sunny, enhanced by light wood accents and the brand’s signature canary-yellow hue. In line with its millennial target customers, the brand is tech-savvy. (It featured eBay-powered, 24-hour shoppable touchscreen store windows in four pop-ups in Manhattan last summer.)


One of the most high-profile shapewear brands is extending its retail reach. Since opening its first stand-alone store in late 2012, in Tysons Corner Center, McLean, Va., Spanx has opened three additional locations, most recently in International Plaza, Tampa, Fla. Coming soon are stores in Westfarms Mall, West Hartford, Conn.; North Park Center, Dallas; and The Mall at Short Hills, Short Hills, N.J. (There are also several Spanx airport stores, which are owned and operated by The Paradies Shops.)

From department stores to boutiques, Spanx products are sold in more than 12,000 retail stores in more than 50 countries around the world. Its product lineup now includes more than 200 items, ranging from its signature — and slimming — pantyhose and body-shapers to bras and swimsuits.

Spanx stores reflect the brand’s larger-than-life personality and its ethos of comfort, function, fashion and fun. The spaces are stylish and chic, accented outside and in with Spanx’s signature red hue. Lucite finishes and high-gloss lacquer are combined with warm, feminine furnishings for a high-fashion feel. Special attention is given to the fitting rooms, which are spacious and enhanced with flattering lighting.

Max Brenner

Who doesn’t love chocolate? Max Brenner certainly does — the company has created an entire culture and global portfolio around it. After launching its U.S. operations with a full-blown restaurant concept offering both sweet and savory meal options, the company is now rolling out a more casual, dessert-cafe concept, called The Chocolate Bar, that will define all future locations.

To date, the company has opened two Chocolate Bars in the United States, one in Bethesda, Md., and a just-opened 2,800-sq.-ft. space in Westfield Garden State Plaza, Paramus, N.J. The format is fast casual. Customers order at the counter and seat themselves, or take their order to go. The menu items range from hot chocolate and milkshakes to banana-split waffles and crepes. The space also includes a retail shop stocked with the brand’s signature chocolates.

The Chocolate Bar aims to give customers a full sensory experience, even pumping the scent of chocolate into the air. The centerpiece of the space is a long bar from which seated customers can watch the products being made. References to chocolate abound, from the rich color palette to the stylized graphics.

Starting in 2015, Max Brenner is looking to open a number of Chocolate Bar locations in the United States. Malls fall within its real estate strategy.

“Our ideal location is one that attracts heavy foot traffic on a consistent basis and has a healthy population of young adults, which comprise our target consumer,” said a spokesperson for the company.


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