Toronto is Canada’s commercial capital and has much to offer retailers in search of visual merchandising novelty. Here are seven of the best
Somewhat contrary to expectation and to what was advertised in this magazine last week, the next couple of pages concentrate not on West End windows and the manner in which retailers dealt with Easter, but on a city about 3,500 miles to the west: Toronto. The reason for this is straightforward. Oxford Street at the moment looks not much more than a local high street that happens to have a branch of, say, Evans or HMV, but on steroids. The net effect of this is that while it may be appealing in terms of width of choice, it also means that there are few surprises, Selfridges and perhaps Urban Outfitters notwithstanding.
By contrast, for the visitor, downtown Toronto yields more than its fair share of formats that are unlikely to have been seen outside the country, some of which would merit greater exposure and which European retailers could do worse than sit up and pay attention to.
Situated on the shore of Lake Ontario, this metropolis of close to 4 million people has, like any big city, several centres of retail activity, depending on the kind of experience and product that is sought.
For those in search of the mainstream, the city is surrounded by the usual shopping malls, perhaps best seen from the air and kept that way - although they doubtless serve a local need with branches of Sears, Old Navy, Zara et al, filling their many units.
However, downtown offers a number of fresh ideas and from where a few lessons might be drawn. It is also worth noting the level of specialisation that can be found in this city, whether it is The Beer Store or the Cookery Book Store, there are many highly niche offers in this gateway to the nation that takes a beaver as its national symbol. And note the service too, it is all-round more friendly and genuinely sincere than you are likely to find in the average Brit retail outlet. Many lessons to be learnt really.
And if all this luxury proves too much, there is also the Canadian version of Halfords meets B&Q in the form of Canadian Tire. This is a hardware store that also happens to sell ice hockey equipment, bikes, lights and even “cyber-clean”, a patented system for ensuring that your computer’s keyboard cleanliness is up to scratch. Something of a catch-all format this, but well laid out and certainly worth
a visit if only to see how widely disparate categories can be combined under one roof and on a single floor. Again, something of a Canadian institution and the kind of place where most shoppers seem to have picked up a host of add-ons as they approach the checkout - articles they were unaware they wanted or needed when they entered.
And if all this luxury proves too much, there is also the Canadian version of Halfords meets B&Q in the form of Canadian Tire. This is a hardware store that also happens to sell ice hockey equipment, bikes, lights and even “cyber-clean”, a patented system for ensuring that your computer’s keyboard cleanliness is up to scratch. Something of a catch-all format this, but well laid out and certainly worth a visit if only to see how widely disparate categories can be combined under one roof and on a single floor. Again, something of a Canadian institution and the kind of place where most shoppers seem to have picked up a host of add-ons as they approach the checkout - articles they were unaware they wanted or needed when they entered.
Indigo And Nicholas Hoare
These two stores are different answers to the same question: how do you continue to sell books in an age in which reading is increasingly a minority activity? For Indigo (right), the approach is to sell toys and gifts, put in a Starbucks coffee lounge and then to offer books in what might almost be seen as a cursory nod in the direction of bibliophiles. This has proved the source of considerable controversy, but its success has meant rapid growth. Nicholas Hoare is an almost entirely different proposition. Books are its mainstay, but what makes it different from rivals is that every volume on its shelves is front-facing. This may sound cavalier in terms of space usage, but consider how much better clothing looks when displayed front-on rather than side-hanging and you get the idea.
Head for the better end of the Toronto retail spectrum and a visit to Holt Renfrew is an indispensable part of this city’s experience, akin to visiting Selfridges, with both stores sharing a common ownership under the Weston family. But for those looking for something a little different, a visit to The Bay (of Hudson’s Bay Trading Company fame) is probably in order. This is not the finest department store you are ever likely to encounter, but ride the escalator to the second floor and “The Room” shows what chief executive Bonnie Brooks has been doing since she took office in 2008. This is a pared down environment where mannequins are used to create themes, such as a military look grouping, and where lists are vital. Everybody likes a list and in The Room a low series of white tables have been placed next to each other with 10 things that you have to have for the current fashion season. It is a simple thing to do, but what it does indicate is the editor’s eye for fashion that Brooks has been applying to The Bay and which she hopes will turn its fortunes around.
Next to Loblaws in many locations, including this one in central Toronto, is Joe Fresh. This is a clothing format, set up by Joe Mimran in 2006, when a team from Loblaws approached the fashion designer to set up a fashion clothing line. The outcome has been one of the country’s fashion phenomena, rising to become Canada’s third largest womenswear retailer on the back of a value-led offer where style is also part of the formula. As far as the interior of these stores is concerned, the clue is in the name. “Fresh” would seem to be as good an adjective as any to describe the store appearance, with white equipment and shelving used throughout and the kind of merchandising that would more normally be associated with mid-market denizens. For men, the displays of cotton pique polo shirts, two for C$16 (£10.40) are likely to prove a showstopper, and there are childrenswear and sportswear offers too.
This is the market leading supermarket and a Canadian institution that can be found in numerous Toronto neighbourhoods and of particular interest as it is where new Morrisons chief executive Dalton Philips has joined from. But the store is a million miles away from what might be typically found at Morrisons.
As a format, the most arresting part of its offer is to be found inside the entrance, where the fresh fruit and veg offer is located. Nothing terribly unusual in this, except that as an example of doing abundance properly, this chain has few parallels. It also manages to soften the appearance of the area through the use of shiny copper canopies above the various departments, which draw the eye.
And in the ambient goods area, where there is normally an aisle that runs along the back of the shop, there is something similar, but wider. This is made possible by putting low tables and freezer cabinets that run the length of the store into the area, thereby demanding greater width and a feeling of improved accessibility in a part of the store that is frequently overcrowded.
Before he worked on Joe Fresh, Joe Mimran collaborated with his brother and backer Alfred Sung to create Club Monaco, a fashion retailer that takes on Banana Republic head to head and, on the basis of the flagship store in downtown Toronto, probably wins at the moment. From the moment you approach the grand neo-classical exterior of this store, there is a sense that this is a serious, preppy brand. Stand at the entrance to the store and the three quasi-college clad mannequins - accompanied by the almost inevitable black retro-looking bike complete with wicker basket - lead you to the conclusion that you have entered the mid-market’s better end. And it is the visual merchandising, combined with the crisp equipment and white interior that give this brand both its point of difference and authority when set alongside its rivals. It has been owned by Ralph Lauren since 1999 and is found all over Canada, the US and parts of both the Middle and Far East, but nowhere in Europe.