La Maison Simons in The CORE shopping center in Calgary, Canada.

TORONTO — Driven by its store expansion across Canada and a rapidly growing online business, Quebec’s 178-year-old retailer La Maison Simons is beginning construction on a multiservice fulfillment center set to launch in Quebec City in 2020.

Projected to cost 215 million Canadian dollars, or $165.8 million, the facility will sit on a 2 million-square-foot lot in the city’s Espace d’Innovation Chauveau and represents “the biggest investment that we have made in our company’s history,” said Simons’ co-owner and president Peter Simons.

It also marks the first time since its launch in 1840 that Simons has brought in outside investors, in this case striking deals with public-sector allies Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Investissement Québec after weeks of discussions with other possible partners.

But venturing into these unchartered waters was “the only way to go,” said Simons.

“This facility is unique in that it mixes elements of automation that are specific to our needs,” said Simons, whose company saw record growth in the first quarter of 2018. Indeed, the retailer’s annual sales currently top 500 million Canadian dollars, or $385.6 million, and online sales should make up a fifth of revenues this year.

Dedicated to automated processing, the new center will use the latest in automation technology to increase fulfillment capacity and speed, such as goods-to-person robotics and high-tech sorters that can consolidate orders more effectively. “Quite a big component here will concern inbound shipping and our being able to fulfill e-commerce orders in a more consolidated manner. We just have to get quicker at doing things,” Simons told WWD. “Now we’ll be able to do 15,000 plus orders per hour. That’s a factor of 10 increase in our current employee productivity.”

Once fully operational, the facility will ship more than 40 million units a year, compared to the 20 million units Simons currently processes through its existing distribution center in Quebec City.

More jobs and greater employee productivity are also anticipated as a result of “giving people more sophisticated tools to work with,” he added.

Moreover, 30 million Canadian dollars of the overall investment will go toward converting Simons’ existing distribution facility into a multiuse center devoted to accelerating online commerce.  

The privately owned, Quebec-based company currently operates 15 stores across Canada, with plans to boost that count to 17 by 2019.

“Investing in people and data is a hard slog,” Simons said. “Frankly, I don’t believe that some of the old economy really get that. But that’s why we wanted to work with the right partners who share our values to bring this center and pilot accelerator project to life.”

Through the virtual e-commerce accelerator, which Simons hopes to launch this fall, artisans will be able to access product photography, marketing and copywriting services, as well as sales and data analytics that can help them better handle the daily elements of business growth. “Artisans do creativity very well. But they don’t want to manage bandwidth growth, data management and other such things. But if you don’t have access to a strong data management platform today you can’t reach a global size,” said Simons.

Now being contacted by applicants, including some big players in Europe who want to better access the Canadian market, Simons said its picks will ultimately be “a love at first sight thing.”

“We’re keeping our focus on Canadian and Quebec artisans. But right now we have an incredible opportunity as a company to grow, guide new talent and offer e-commerce solutions with more heart and more attention,” said Simons. “As always, doing the right thing and being proud of what we are doing is the force that drives us.”

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