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Simons, the 175-year-old retailer from Quebec, will expand into five cities across the country over the next two years, bringing the total store count to 14.

This story first appeared in the December 31, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“For us, this is aggressive,” said Peter Simons, the chief executive officer and fifth-generation Simons to lead the chain. “We are a small, family-owned, private retailer. It’s a big move from a more local regional to a national operation.”

Canada is seeing a major influx of U.S. retailers, but Simons said his firm’s expansion is not a direct response to the new competition. “It’s more of a response to our strategy,” he told WWD. “Our goal is not to have a big company. To be able to execute on collaborations and design ideas, we needed to be a bit larger to work effectively with different design and creative partners.”

For U.S. retailers entering Canada, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, he has a warning: “It’s not as easy as it looks. Canadians will make their choices. The problems that Target has experienced will make [newcomers] think twice.” For Target, it was a case of too much, too soon, opening 124 stores across Canada in 2013 and running into an array of problems, from empty shelves to a lack of acceptance by Canadians, leading to major financial losses.

In Canada, as in the U.S., “it’s a challenging, competitive environment” for selling women’s apparel, Simons said. “It’s faster paced than it used to be. It’s a tough business.” He said it’s becoming more demanding because of the speed of change, international challenges, the need to know customers, the need to create value and keep it exciting. Simons also said that, in Canada, “the promotional environment is evolving rapidly and aligning with the U.S.”

Simons exceeds $300 million in annual volume. It isn’t like other department or specialty stores: It’s a hybrid, offering a range of “mid to high-end prices,” with private labels, national brands and designer brands, but no cosmetics. “Some people find it surprising we don’t sell cosmetics,” Simons said. “But we are a large-scale fashion specialty store with women’s, men’s and soft home goods for the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. We have chosen to focus on that, providing us with a business model customers appreciate. Our stores offer consumers a unique shopping experience with our innovative fashion mix and our commitment to designing engaging environments that celebrate Canadian art and architecture.”

The company was founded by John Simons as a dry-goods store in Quebec. There are three locations in Quebec, headquarters in Old Quebec, and one store each in Anjou, Edmonton, Montreal, Laval, Saint-Bruno and Sherbrooke.

Here, Simons discusses the company’s upcoming expansion, priorities and competitive advantages.

WWD: Despite your strong presence in Quebec for the past 175 years and the successful launch of your first outpost in Edmonton two years ago, La Maison Simons remains something of a hidden gem in Canada. Is that why you decided to embark on such an ambitious expansion across the country?

Peter Simons: We felt it was time to manage a more geographically expansive company. We had to grow to accommodate the relationships we have with our designers and suppliers. Even with our expansion plans, we will still be a smaller company compared to our competitors. But we had to have a larger footprint to accomplish all that we want to in the future, particularly in terms of the innovation we hope to bring to retail.

WWD: How do you define La Maison Simons as compared to other retailers?

P.S.: Simons isn’t a traditional department store. It’s a large-scale specialty retailer. We don’t sell washers and dryers. We don’t do cosmetics. We offer a very complex assortment of fashion designers and really fine-tune that mix so that it relates to the way people buy now, whether they’re pairing a $1,000 jacket with a $20 T-shirt. That’s how people shop today, so we really try to service that attitude as well as the changing needs of all our customers.

WWD: That customer base spans a wide age range. How have you been able to fulfill the needs of such a wide range of customers?

P.S.: Our goal is to service multiple generations in all our stores. We offer distinctive brands that meet every budget, style preference, as well as a wide range of body types. It’s a balancing act. But that’s what we do, and we’re always trying to execute things better.

WWD: As a privately owned company, does that give you an advantage in today’s retail market?

P.S.: We hope to stay that way for as long as possible. But Simons is also a value-based company. That combination has given us the ability to make unique choices about the suppliers and buyers that we want to work with — choices that public companies simply cannot make.

WWD: Does being private allow you to take some risks and venture into new territory?

P.S.: I would say that’s true.

WWD: For example, I understand that you have become quite interested in Bionic Yarn, the start-up fronted by Pharrell Williams that recycles plastic from the ocean into eco-threads for high-performance textiles. Does Simons have a deal with this company for using this material in future in-house labels?

P.S.: We are interested in product innovation, especially as we move into the future. So, this start-up has captured my interest. We will see. As in any business venture, the chemistry has to be right.

WWD: American companies are clamoring for a piece of Canada’s retail pie, including Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. How will Simons compete with these powerhouse retailers?

P.S.: First of all, we’re a homegrown brand. We’re part of the fabric in this country. I believe that means something to Canadian consumers, particularly at a time when many competitors are now headquartered outside of this country. We also like to participate in our communities. We support the arts and showcase the work of homegrown artists in our stores.

WWD: Discuss how you, much like an artistic patron, make the in-store experience special for your customers.

P.S.: We have spent a substantial amount of money on the art and architecture that is interwoven into the fabric of our stores. That is something we have always done. It’s all part of creating a unique physical experience for our customers. That kind of artistry and beauty is essential to us and to our retail philosophy. The store environment is critically important. But it’s more than that. Customers are smart. They are also very socially minded today and are drawn to companies that embrace that attitude. These factors cannot be ignored. It’s how the customer will decide who they will and won’t support in the retail world.

WWD: How will technology play a role in your future expansion plans?

P.S.: The Internet has laid down a technological foundation. But I believe the real revolution in retail is just about to begin. I think we are about to see a very interesting time ahead, where corporate responsibility and a focus on customer-centric values will be as important to a company’s success as the goods they sell and the technological platforms they use to convey that information.

WWD: As Canadians learn more about Simons over the next two years, what should they expect?

P.S.: My goal is to give Canadians a fulfilling and creative shopping experience. So, as we move ahead and Canadians become more familiar with us and what we can deliver, I hope they will come to see Simons as a destination they can turn to for inspiration, great customer service and access to innovative designers at every price point.

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