Unlike the United States, Europe and the Middle East, the Canadian retail luxury landscape is dominated by one major player, Holt Renfrew, which was founded in 1837 in Quebec City.
In 1986, the venerable retail chain was acquired by Galen Weston, who also owns Selfridges in London and Brown Thomas in Ireland. Since then, Holts has gone on to become the destination for luxury shoppers in Canada with 9 locations in all major cities, an estimated $500m in revenues, and still virtually no competition to speak of in the domestic luxury department store market.
However, with monopoly can come complacency.
To address this, in 2004, the company brought in Caryn Lerner to be its new President and CEO. Lerner came to Holts after a distinguished career in American retail luxury department stores and brands. At a recent Luxury Goods and Retail Conference at Harvard Business School, Lerner told the audience that it was her ambition to make Holt Renfrew the best luxury retail shopping experience in the world, saying that even though the company operates without any major domestic competition, Holts' competitors are the Saks, Harvey Nichols and Printemps of the world, because the luxury shopper is well-traveled and expects a global standard.
Some of her initiatives to achieve this lofty goal have been to revitalise the brand image, build a programme for driving sales through individual customer relationships, and take control of the shoe department which was previously subcontracted out to an external partner. These are all sensible decisions in light of Ms. Lerner's insight that the luxury shopper is a global customer.
Finally, there is also the brand new Holt Renfrew store in Vancouver. Over the weekend I visited the store and found that although the service was excellent (very friendly and helpful) and the brand mix was strong (luxury, contemporary and young designer brands), the store seemed to lack consistency. On the one hand, it was clean and shiny (if not a bit mass market) like some of the new Bloomingdales stores, but the (bizarre, trying too hard spaceship and dinosaur theme) visual merchandising was aiming (mostly unsuccessfully) to be more like Barneys New York, with a little Selfridges thrown into the mix.
The new hot pink shopping bags with modern, stylised logo didn't help either, especially for shoppers who want to be discrete about their purchases or men who don't want to walk around with a bright pink shopping bag. A salesperson admitted that they have experienced a few challenges with the store and are still making changes to make it work better.
With limited local competition, the chain is clearly not under direct threat. But, it does need to work out what it is trying to be, so that all of the elements of the retail experience can create the pinnacle of luxury that Ms. Lerner is rightfully trying to create.