A rendering of the new 'net zero energy' flagship.

TORONTO — After 178 years in business, Canadian department store La Maison Simons knows a thing or two about surviving retail’s winds of change.

“Five generations of my family have helmed this operation and they’ve all faced unique challenges. But we are living in revolutionary times, where environmental sustainability has become the big issue of our era,” said Simons’ co-owner and president Peter Simons. “Frankly, finding solutions to meet this challenge can’t come fast enough for me.”

Powered by that mind-set, on March 15, La Maison Simons will debut its first “net zero energy” flagship in Quebec City’s Galeries de la Capitale mall.

Representing the culmination of six years of trial and error, the 80,000-square-foot store replaces an existing unit Simons operated on the site. The 25 million Canadian dollar reimagining creates a store that can generate as much energy on-site as it consumes annually. That achievement makes it possible to emit less overall greenhouse gas into the atmosphere both now and in the years to come.

“We must have tested 100 different types of LED lights in various situations throughout the store until we got it right. But reduction was the key,” Simons said.

Indeed, his team studied every possible inch of space throughout the six-year development process, continuously asking themselves, “How do we reduce our consumption?”

To achieve that goal, 27 geothermal boreholes were drilled into the ground under the mall’s parking lot. That major structural change allowed for a pump to be installed to pull heat from the ground to warm the flagship, as well as cool it during the summer by extracting heat from its interior and sending it back into the earth.

Simons’ collaborators installed a state-of-the-art LED lighting control program, as well as other energy-efficient systems to heat, ventilate and air condition this prototype.

Ultimately, the interplay of technologies translated into a 60 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to the company’s original location in the mall.

For the customer, what lies inside is equally intriguing, such as Simons’ “We Watt” station, where shoppers can jump onto stationary bicycles and charge their phones by cycling to create electricity.

Art, too, plays a strategic role in conveying Simons’ eco-message to its consumers, who include a strong contingent of 25- to 35-year-old Millennials, as well as loyal older shoppers.

One of the most striking inclusions, in fact, comes from Quebec artist Giorgia Volpe, whose 11- by 20-foot sculpture titled “La Cime,” or “The Tope,” is made from branches suspended at different heights under a skylight, all of which are covered in papier mâché, recovered fabrics, and recycled clothing from Galeries de la Capitale’s customers.

“At its very core the question we’re really addressing here is how we as a company can power a community with integrity,” said Simons.

“This is a prototype, so we want to spark a discussion and hear our customers’ feedback,” added Simons, whose latest project will also feature its first dedicated shoe department that showcases an assortment of styles from Italy, Europe and North America, as well as little-known Canadian suppliers.

The new footwear destination also connects two wings: one devoted to high-end private labels and brands for women, and the other for men’s wear and home fashions.

Simons currently operates 15 stores across Canada, including nine locations in Quebec, as well as stores in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Mississauga, Ont., and Ottawa.

More eco-flagships will likely follow, although official roll-out dates have yet to be confirmed. But as Simons mused, “The ball has now been thrown to the customer. I’m hoping that they will want to support what we’ve accomplished here, though there’s still much more to do. But the customer is in charge. If they don’t get behind this kind of socially responsible retail philosophy for the future I’ll have to accept it.”

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