TORONTO — Before Walmart invaded Canada in 1994, discount chain Biway had bargain hunters across eight provinces piling in for deals on clothing, health and beauty aids, bedding and housewares. Now, 17 years after the chain shuttered, original co-chief executive officer Mal Coven, 89, is relaunching the concept next year but in a reimagined format called Biway $10 Store Ltd.
“I knew the value in the Biway name and didn’t want to see it forgotten. So I found a vehicle to keep it alive,” said Coven, who began his “wonderful retail adventure” when the Filene’s buyer from Boston arrived in Toronto in 1961 to go into business with Biway founder and brother-in-law Abe Fish.
During the 28-year span from 1962 to 1990, when Coven left the company, Biway operated 249 stores across the country, which sold simple “working man” staples like Lee and Levi’s jeans, Van Heusen men’s and women’s merchandise, and more at low prices.
In its new incarnation, “$10 is the magic number,” Coven told WWD, referring to Canadian dollars.
Launching in Toronto in August and with other locations to follow in 2020, the initial 7,500-square-foot location at Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue will offer a mix of women’s wear; children’s wear from infants to size 14; men’s wear; shoes; beauty goods; linens; housewares, and more — all from contemporary brands that are household names in Canada and the U.S., according to Coven, Biway’s president.
“The emphasis will be on quality. I’m fussy about that. Also, everything we carry will be fashionable and feel good to customers,” he said.
While brand names are not being disclosed at this time, Coven confirmed that he is “cherry picking brands consumers would recognize at The Bay or in other specialty stores and putting them into this $10 price line.”
For example, jackets sold for $40 in other retail stores will go for $10. “Shoes that were priced at $28 elsewhere will also be sold for $10,” Coven added.
Items will also be sold in multiples, such as two for $10 or three for $10, depending on Biway’s stock and marketing strategy.
Coven estimates that Biway could do $3 million in sales in its first year based on shoppers’ average purchases of $30 to $40 per visit.
Biway’s rejuvenated format will employ techniques used by supermarkets and fine specialty, shops such as wider aisles for easier movement between departments; the bold visual signage used in kids’ stores for clarity, and cut-cases to present health and beauty items.
Biway’s store size also allows customers to see what they want and get to it quickly in every department. That, Coven stressed, translates into “a better shopping experience for consumers of all ages.”
Finally, one of Biway’s biggest advantages is perhaps its recognizable name, which can be used to rekindle interest in the retailer across Toronto and Canada.
“We’ve got an edge that other start-ups just don’t have,” Coven said.
According to a survey conducted by Goldfarb and Associates, 96 percent of people in Ontario are aware of Biway’s name today. As well, 95 percent of those surveyed felt that Biway gave good value. Ninety-five percent also said they would be interested in visiting a new Biway.
This is good news for Coven, whose Biway $10 Store concept “will be financed with one or more outside investors,” whom he declined to name. While there will be no franchising, Coven sees opportunity ahead for the company online. “But for now we have to walk first, then run,” he said.
Finally, as was done years ago, Biway’s key management will be offered equity in the new operation, which Coven believes has the potential to grow into a cross-country chain of 1,000 stores.
Retail analysts see pros and cons in Biway’s reentrance into the market, no matter how well-considered it may be.
“In Canada there is a desire among consumers for low-end brands that deliver quality. That need is an opportunity for Biway,” said Maureen Atkinson, a senior partner at J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. “Sears’ absence from the Canadian market could work in Biway’s favor. The gap is there and that, potentially, could be an opportunity for Biway. But it must deliver or it’s game over in today’s highly competitive market.”
Relying on Biway’s nostalgic appeal may also be problematic, according to Atkinson and Deloitte Canada senior marketing adviser Livia Zufferli.
“Canada now has a strong contingent of national and international brands that consumers regularly shop. To break that routine you really have to offer something special,” said Zufferli, the former head of marketing for Target Canada. “There is room for a new entrance in the market and nostalgia can work because it makes people curious and drives traffic through. But there has to be a more sustainable reason for people to come in. In the end product quality, service and the promise of a really unique, customer-centric experience is what’s relevant today.”
Yet retail vet Coven — who turns 90 in 2019 — remains undaunted.
“In February, we will take possession of the Toronto site. By April we will have most of our staff in place,” said Coven, who is also establishing a board of directors for this venture.
“When I left Biway in 1990, it was doing 500 million [Canadian dollars] in volume,” Coven said.
Biway did not survive his departure. Acquired by a U.S. dollar-store chain owned by an Israeli corporate raider, it was ultimately shuttered in 2001. At its peak, Biway was among the top 50 discounters in North America, according to Coven.
“Maybe we can hit that mark again. I don’t know. But I am confident this $10 concept will appeal to budget-conscious consumers and the sophisticated shopper,” Coven said. “After all, who says rich people don’t like to save money, too, when they shop?”