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After sitting back and watching competitors enter its territory, Canada’s Holt Renfrew is renovating, modernizing and embracing the creme de la creme of the luxury market.

“Catching up is really the way to say it,” Mario Grauso, the president of Holt Renfrew, told WWD. “We were a little behind for a certain amount of time. Now we are getting to the place we should have been a few years ago.”

For the Toronto-based Holt Renfrew, “catching up” means investing in the business — $400 million Canadian for a spectrum of brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, omnichannel and technology projects that began in 2017 and conclude in 2020.

It also means defending the home turf.

Long the only upscale department store in Canada, the 182-year-old Holt Renfrew has since the Nineties witnessed luxury retailers from Tiffany to Prada trickling into downtown Vancouver and onto Bloor Street and Yorkville Avenue in Toronto, and in the past four years, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue have planted stores in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver. In Canada, Nordstrom has six stores and Saks has three.

Asked about the impact of Nordstrom and Saks, Grauso replied: “Our volume has only gone up. We have heavily differentiated in this market. That is our approach. It starts with the type of environments we build. It continues with the service we provide, which is heavily concentrated on the experience. The activities that we program into these stores are at a very high level and very fun for the customer. The personal shopping is very special.

“But I go back to that environment piece. They are just not building environments like us. We have only grown since I joined Holt Renfrew,” in September 2016.

Nordstrom’s Vancouver flagship, opened in fall 2015, has become a top door for the Seattle-based upscale department store chain. “There is room for both of us in Vancouver,” said Grauso.
“[Copresident] Pete Nordstrom did a great job in that market. But I think we do it differently and that’s why we coexist well.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Grauso outlined Holt Renfrew’s master plan. Among the projects in the works:

• Renovating 90 percent of Holt Renfrew Vancouver, which sources say is the retailer’s largest-volume location, accounting for about 400 million Canadian dollars of the company’s 1.2 billion Canadian dollars, or $800 million, in annual sales. The project, nearly done, brought the vendor shop count to 87 from 45, with more shops to come. There’s been a 40,000-square-foot expansion, with space gains in women’s footwear, beauty, personal shopping and men’s wear, and new handbag, ready-to-wear and cosmetic floors.

• Holt Renfrew Ogilvy in Montreal, which became the retailer’s largest location at 250,000 square feet through the addition of 40,000 square feet by converting office space and from the adjacent Hotel de la Montagne, which was demolished. The six-level flagship overhauled its beauty and men’s floors and is remaking the fifth floor for personal shopping, activewear, seasonal accessories and men’s and women’s outerwear; the third floor for women’s designer and advanced contemporary; the second floor for women’s footwear, modern collections and jewelry, and the main floor, which will house “world of” designer boutiques, each with ready to wear, leather goods and fine jewelry.

• Yorkdale, Holt’s second largest-volume store at about $250 million Canadian in annual sales according to sources, will expand by 10,000 square feet, bringing it to 129,000 square feet. The main floor is being overhauled; large shops for Gucci, Dior and Fendi, each selling men’s and women’s merchandise, are being introduced through space attained from a former Anthropologie store, and larger personal shopping suites are being added.

• The Toronto flagship, 50 Bloor Street W, is expanding and renovating the women’s footwear, beauty and  leather goods areas. A Colette Grand Café is being created and men’s wear will grow by 55 percent. Men’s is being repatriated from the former freestanding Holt Renfrew men’s store at 100 Bloor Street W, which opened in 2014 and will eventually close.

Additionally, e-commerce is finally being conducted in earnest, after shutting down years ago, tip-toeing back in last year with just beauty offerings, and, as of last month, selling all categories.

There have also been investments in IT, with the company converting to SAP software for improved merchandising and finance systems, and upgrading point-of-sale systems for better customer service and integrations between online and in-store merchandise information. Last year, the Joor automated system of buying was implemented and a European distribution center opened near Milan to get goods to the selling floors faster.

“Three years ago we started all of this. It will all be complete in Q3 of 2020,” said Grauso.

“The old management team had asked for capital but we really started all these projects when I joined. Nothing had been designed or done. When I started we were able to actually go in and decide how to deploy the capital.”

On a recent Friday, Grauso visited Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, located on Saint-Catherine Street W in Montreal. Hudson’s Bay and Simon’s operate moderate-priced department stores in Montreal, but there’s virtually no luxury competition in town. The Ogilvy store has a long history. It was founded 150 years ago as Jas. A. Ogilvy & Sons, purchased by the Weston family in 2011, and renamed Holt Renfrew Ogilvy last March.

Keeping the Ogilvy name is a nod to the historic significance of the store to the city, though other impressions from the past remain. Ogilvy’s Romanesque stone facade and stately interior columns have been retained, though the columns have been capped with octagonal surrounds for LED lights hidden in the troughs, and Ogilvy’s signature plaid now appears on the classic Holt Renfrew shopping bags.

“We are being very respectful of the Ogilvy brand because It means so much in this market,” Grauso said. “We have taken every precaution we could take, from absorbing the staff and referencing the history, to the shopping bag and adding the name to the Holt Renfrew moniker. So I think everything we could do to reference the history we have done.”

Grauso began the tour for a guest, eager to show off the reimagined beauty floor and other transformed areas. He believes they exemplify recent upgrades or those underway at other Holt Renfrew locations.

Beauty was relocated from the main floor to the concourse level and expanded to 28,000 square feet from under 10,000 square feet. That’s enabled larger vendor beauty shops, generally 500 to 600 square feet each, as well as branded shops for fragrance and treatment rooms called “cabines.” There are 30 skin care, fragrance and color shops including exclusive shops for Chantecaille, Charlotte Tilbury, Christian Louboutin, Clé de Peau, Erno Laszlo, Gucci Beauty, La Prairie, Maison Christian Dior and Sisley, as well as shops by Tom Ford, Chanel, La Mer and Givenchy.

Fragrance shops include Byredo, Chopard and Bastide, also exclusive to the market, as well as Bulgari, Creed, Guerlain, Hermès and Jo Malone. They compliment the multibrand fragrance area and the scent shop. There’s also a sunglass shop, a “clean beauty” section selling such brands as 111 Skin and Grown Alchemist, an Hermès beauty prototype, and pop-up spaces for “animations,” such as color demos and product launches.

The floor feels spacious with 10-foot-wide aisles and partitions no higher than five feet to see clear across the expanse. “If you don’t allocate the space, it’s not going to be a calm shopping journey,” observed Grauso. “It’s a calmer, more residential feeling that allows vendors to convey their own spirit. The brands personalize their shops but it still feels like our architecture.” That’s due to the discrete, uniform signage for the brands and the silver metal framework, or “ribbon,” from shop to shop, which tie the floor together.

“The floor is really designed for vendors to be able to interact with clients and have a lot of programming going on where vendors teach clients about their products,” Grauso said. “There’s always activity in beauty. There’s movable fixtures to accommodate launches, seating in every shop, the shops are spacious and there’s some degree of privacy, which is not the norm for department stores. We tried to make it a little more intimate.”

For shoppers, “This is a lot about learning how to use products,” Grauso said. “It’s not enough to just put the products out there.”

Holt Renfrew pop ups or “activations” aren’t afterthoughts. Ten percent of the selling space, chain-wide, is devoted to pop ups, Grauso said. “You can’t just take a piece of the aisle for this. In the past they happened when they happened. Now we are [encouraging] vendors to participate. There is a difference in terms of the level of pop up. Frequently there’s construction involved, so it’s not just something you take out of a box and put on the floor.”

He cites last February’s “Prada Spirit” as an example, installed on the busy pedestrian bridge linking the Vancouver store to the CP Pacific Centre mall and Four Seasons Hotel. Exclusive leather accessories were presented in a swank setting which was as much about relaxing and socializing as shopping. Another pop up activation was the Coco Game Centre on the concourse level of the 50 Bloor Street store in Toronto last spring. It featured custom Chanel arcade games as part of a Chanel beauty pop up.

“I agree pop ups have been played out, but our definition of a pop up is very different,” Grauso emphasized. “They’re more interactive with customers than they were in the past. Sometimes there is no product involved. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would work for a department store like us.

“We get very inspired by Selfridges,” in the U.K. which, like Holt Renfrew, is part of the Selfridges Group Limited, chaired by W. Galen Weston, and which also owns Brown Thomas in Ireland, and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands.

“Selfridges does an exceptional job making the store come alive with all these activations. They are interacting with art and culture. I have to say they have raised the bar for us. We look to them to kind of push us, and they have,” Grauso admitted, though Holt Renfrew has yet to actually duplicate a Selfridge pop-up.

On Holt Renfrew Ogilvy’s new men’s hall on four, Grauso cites as among the 25 designer shops Balenciaga, Brioni, Saint Laurent Paris and The Row, all exclusive to the market, as well as Burberry, Brunello Cucinelli, Celine, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Gucci, Moncler and Tom Ford.

There’s a new men’s footwear area including Christian Louboutin and Gucci; new men’s personal shopping suites designed by Martin Brûlé Studio; a grooming area with shops from Creed, Hermès, Tom Ford and Acqua di Parma; men’s suiting features Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali, Eleventy, Isaia, Paul Smith and Valentino, among other labels, and men’s designer offerings include Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garcons, both exclusive to the market, as well as such labels as Thom Browne, Balmain, Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Acne.

“This is a really lucky moment to be able to gut the 250,000-square-foot space and create an environment from scratch,” said Grauso. “I feel enormously fortunate to be able to open a project like this. I don’t think there are many department stores this size where you are able to start from scratch, close it all off and reopen in stages. That’s hard to do.”

When construction winds up at the Ogilvy unit in 2020, the old Holt Renfrew store two blocks away at 1300 Sherbrooke Street W, which opened in 1942, will close for good. “We’re fortunate to have a store up the street to continue trading during construction. That’s not normally the case either,” Grauso said.

“It’s very hard to predict the impact of construction on our business. I will tell you that I have been pleasantly surprised by our ability to trade around construction. It surprised me greatly.”

Montreal, he added, “is a market where we sell far more evening than in other markets. This is also very much a beauty and fragrance market. That’s why we devoted 28,000 square feet to beauty and fragrance because this market is tuned into it. Customers are very aware of the beauty trends and aware of what goes on in that artisanal fragrance world.”

Toronto, on the other hand, “is more typical of an urban hub, and Vancouver for me is a very advanced market. That consumer demands the most current trends, the most valued brands,” Grauso noted.

For Holt Renfrew, founded as a fur shop in Quebec City in 1837, tightening its grip on luxury and designer shops (often leased) is a major thrust, particularly with such brands as The Row, CDG Brands, Brioni, Berluti, Balmain, Celine and Thom Browne.

But Grauso said, “We are upping our assortment overall – even our contemporary assortment has gotten much bigger. As we expand, we expand everywhere. It’s not just in the luxury segment. We have really built a contemporary universe that is right for our store. If you look at our shoe departments, the assortment of sneakers has grown. When you speak about this casual component, it’s definitely all over the store.”

This season, Holt Renfrew introduced activewear into the advanced contemporary assortment. “When you look at Cucinelli or The Row, when you see sweats and cashmere, everyone is delivering against that kind of casual activewear need — I’m staring at polo shirts and sweat jackets in Gucci.”

E-commerce is another growth opportunity. It’s where Holt Renfrew is a Johnny-come-lately, though six months ago, Grauso recruited a new head of e-com, Rochelle Ezekiel, from the Hudson Bay Co.

“With e-commerce, when I joined Holt Renfrew I kind of closed it and gave it just to beauty,” said Grauso, who was previously president of Joe Fresh, which like Holt Renfrew is part of the Weston business empire. “I waited for all of our IT work to be complete to relaunch it. We relaunched it a month ago so there is a new platform. Rochelle worked on this with us. There are over 17,000 sku’s (stockkeeping units). It’s a very good representation of our assortment. It’s not a complete representation yet. I feel good about the progress and there is still a lot of work to do. We are very late to the game but I think this was the intelligent approach. Some of our biggest brands will not necessarily transition online with us. Chanel and Hermès are not necessarily looking for retail partners for e-commerce. They’re doing it on their own and don’t do it with retail partners typically.”

Chanel beauty can be purchased on Holt Renfrew’s web site, but getting Chanel handbags and rtw on the web site is “not necessarily something that will happen.”

Louis Vuitton, he noted, has its product catalogue on Holt Renfrew’s web site, for viewing, not e-commerce. Grauso is okay with that, explaining, “You’ve got to assume that a lot of young people are looking online before they are shopping in store for what they are potentially going to buy. We find [the web site] a good tool for that.”

E-commerce should account for 10 to 15 percent of the overall business “in the next few years,” Grauso projected.

On the omni-channel front, last fall Holt established an order online, pick up in store service, and enabled stores to ship items to homes. “So far, it looks like it might turn into something,” Grauso said. “We had not historically been omnichannel. We are trying to get there in our way and honestly, we want this online experience to mimic the in-store  experience and that’s part of the reason we are going slower and being very thoughtful about how we do it. I’d like to think we give a certain level of service, a certain level of visuals and a certain level of assortment, and I want all of those things to come through online as well. It’s been a little harder to get there because of the level we have set in brick and mortar.”

Grauso said Canada’s luxury market has experienced “an enormous increase” largely due to the influx of Asians with money and “an enormous amount of young people obsessed with designer goods.”

“Canada is a very welcoming country so you have a very diverse population… It’s amazing how tuned into luxury young people are now. You’d be crazy not to focus on the young consumer. If you walk through and look at the assortment, you feel it here. Whether it’s Bang & Olufsen headphones or the amount of sneakers or track pants we display, we are constantly thinking about the younger consumer, the next Holt’s consumer. You can’t just deliver to the core Holt’s consumer.”

Retail and real estate sources depict Holt Renfrew as healthy financially, well-funded by the Westons, and humming along despite rising competition. It helps to have a home court advantage, lots of loyal customers, and a leg up with designer offerings.

“I feel good about where we are, especially considering what we just talked about – all the construction going on. We are in the right place in terms of business,” said Grauso, though there are challenges.

“I think the season started a little late,” Grauso added. “The weather here has been a challenge. Somehow this year has been tougher. It snowed in Toronto yesterday.”

In Canada’s colder climate, “That pre-spring buy can be very tricky,” Grauso said. “It needs to be wear-now for us and wear-now for us is very cold weather. We really have to be careful as merchants with weights and what can be worn now. We are in the coat business until May. That’s unusual for most retailers. I have a coat department almost ten months a year.”

Fast Facts on Holt Renfrew

• The grip on luxury is tightening with an influx of designer shops, often leased. The Row, CDG Brands, Brioni, Berluti, Balmain, Celine and Thom Browne are among the important labels.

• The Vancouver flagship is the luxury chain’s largest volume unit generating $400 million Canadian in annual sales.

• Ten percent of sales are done through personal shopping. Of that, 27 percent is men’s.

• Holt Renfrew has 11 locations but drops to nine with the eventual closings of the men’s store on Bloor Street and the old Holt unit in Montreal. Men’s wear is being re-integrated into the women’s flagship on Bloor Street and the old Holt in Montreal is being integrated into the nearby Holt Renfrew Ogilvy.

• Ten percent of floor space through the chain is devoted to pop ups for animations and events.



Structural upgrades, spaciousness and letting the light in.

Those were some of the key objectives architect Jeffrey Hutchison set forth on redesigning the interiors of Holt Renfrew Ogilvy in Montreal.

“Because of all the windows, Ogilvy was known as ‘the store of light.’ So I really embraced letting in natural light. I tried to bring that history back,” said Hutchison, of Jeffrey Hutchison & Associates, which had support from Lemay, a Montreal-based architectural firm, on the project.

The store is connected to the Four Seasons Hotel and private residences and has a new expansion façade designed by the Gensler, while the main stone facade has been restored and preserved.

He also felt that Ogilvy, which he characterized as a great example of a Louis Sullivan-inspired Chicago building should have a very open, spacious floor plan that embraced “the vocabulary” of the original columns, because they’re so predominant, situated every 20 feet.

Hutchison also said the building had to be structurally upgraded. “Montreal is in a seismic zone equivalent to San Francisco. Upgrading was tricky. New cross-bracing was put in a very sensitive way to make sure our objectives were not impacted.”

Interiors in fashion areas feature sumptuous dark gray stone and natural oak floors, glass, metal and fabrics to convey a warm, rich, yet still neutral palette. Recycled components were also utilized.  The concept was to provide “a strong vocabulary for Holt and to let the brands express themselves,” Hutchison said. “We created the right balance.” In beauty, the idea was to “keep it very clean and light,” he added.

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