There are many reasons to visit Vancouver but for those on a mission to understand the diversity of Canadian retail it’s worth a stopover.
Vancouver is frequently ranked as one of the world’s best cities in which to live and, apart from a spot of civil unrest in 2011, there has been little to disturb this reputation. And when it comes to retail, it is representative of much of the current state of play in the big cities across this enormous country.
‘The Bay’, aka the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Holt Renfrew are the two big department store players in the city’s downtown area, with the former being relatively mid-market while the latter is luxury all the way.
Not far from this, in the Victorian warehouse area known as Gastown, there is a swathe of independent retailers, as well as the tourist paraphernalia that might be associated with an area that offers boho chic for those passing through town.
Take a ferry across to North Vancouver and things change abruptly.
This is more akin to small town North America with ribbon retail development and a very good supermarket close to the shore called Market Place.
Vancouver is a relatively small city, about 600,000 people, but it is spread across a large area, has very distinctive retail areas and is worth exploring. Although if you don’t like sushi you might be in trouble, because there are few other options when eating out.
With an international reputation and founded by the man whose name hangs above this flagship store’s entrance, John Fluevog is a shoe retailer, but is very different from the run of the mill in terms of range and store interiors. This large space, which has been formed by throwing a glass roof over two adjoining Victorian buildings, in the heart of Gastown has two floors - a ground level and a mezzanine at the rear of the store.
The latter is in fact closed to shoppers, although highly visible, as it is home to the John Fluevog design workshop, where the idiosyncratic styles that are the hallmark of the brand are created. The main bulk of the store, however, uses laterally sliced and varnished tree trunks to act as the display equipment in the mid-shop, while a large part of the perimeter at the front is dedicated to a graphic that tells the story of the retailer.
An A-board outside the shop reads ‘The hardest working man in shoe business’ and, whatever you think of the pun, it is hard not to be impressed by an interior that gives shoppers a large amount of space to move around the store.
Old Faithful Shop
Also in Gastown is Old Faithful Shop, an independent homewares and gift emporium that bears the legend ‘Good Quality Goods’ as its strapline in the window. Within, the exposed brick walls and reclaimed wooden floors are in keeping with the back-to-basics nature of the stock. The interior is also noteworthy for the wooden mid-shop fixturing and the chalet-style wooden hut that protrudes from the wall towards the back of the store.
The chalet is home to handmade leather bags, while stock around the perimeter is displayed on wood and bare metal shelves.
The store is typical of many of the fit-outs in this part of Vancouver, but the visual merchandising is a cut above the majority of stores, as is the use of pendant and Anglepoise lights to illuminate the interior.
A 15-minute ferry journey across the harbour takes the visitor to North Vancouver, where one of the first stores that is likely to be encountered on disembarking is Market Place. Unlike many supermarkets, this one has a full set of windows along its front, and the fresh fruit and veg department is in this area, benefiting from the high level of natural daylight.
Prepared deli foods are displayed beneath a striped awning - a detail repeated across the store. There are also counters throughout the shop, creating the Market Street-esque style beloved of Morrisons. Interestingly, and in common with supermarket giant Loblaws’ store in Toronto, the decision has been taken to equip the store with a warm orange-brown floor.
To the right of the cash desk area a group of leather armchairs makes up the in-store cafe, which is not separated from the rest of the store as is normal practice in the majority of UK supermarkets.
This luxury department store is in the middle of Vancouver’s central business and mainstream retail district. The determinedly white, multi-floor store’s major feature is the escalators in the middle of the shop, which occupy a large, circular atrium and enable shoppers to view all levels at the same time and get a sense of what each floor offers.
To an extent, this is standard department store practice, but it is the installations, such as the mannequins passing through a door, which appear to be floating, that mark it out as something different.
Overhead, the spotlight-studded ceiling and triangular light covers add to the contemporary feel and the expectation that a visit to this store will probably involve digging deep. If luxury is about scene-setting, then Holt Renfrew, with its mix of high-end brands and hyper-bright interior, is a master at doing so.
Topshop/Topman in Hudson’s Bay
The deal struck by Arcadia to open Topshop and Topman areas in Hudson’s Bay department stores in Canada is showcased in Vancouver.
A very large, multi-roomed area has been devoted to a shop-in-shop for the UK retail outfit and all of the hallmarks that make this a retail brand with cross-border appeal have been incorporated. These range from modish groups of mannequins to the vertical blue-white neon tubes that are used as backing for the Tall section in Topshop.
As an exercise in producing a shopfit that would be instantly recognisable to any visitor from the UK, this is flawless.
What makes it particularly laudable is the manner in which the brand has been marketed, to the extent that this is a must-visit store on the Toronto fashion circuit.
‘The Bay’ has not been without its problems in Canada, but one of the highlights of its gradual recovery has been the inclusion of Topshop/Topman as part of the mix.
Open for little more than a month, the massive Victoria’s Secret lingerie store in the downtown area shows what the US owner, Ohio-based Limited Brands, can do if it has the space.
In London there are Victoria’s Secret stores in Westfield Stratford and on Bond Street, but the scale of what has been done in Vancouver, largely owing to the height of the unit that it occupies, puts this store in a different league. And like the UK outlets, which feature bra and knicker-wearing ‘Angels’ with feathered wings in the windows, this store is filled with demi-torsos sporting wings and ornate lingerie.
The best time to see this store is probably after dark, when the pink exterior is lit up, forming a retail beacon in the downtown area. Darkness also permits the giant variegated pink lampshades to be seen - they are focal points of this dramatic interior.
Rank among Canadian municipalities by population Eighth
Reason for visiting its retail offer Diversity
Best feature Independent stores in Gastown