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Inside the Chase: La Maison Simons goes West

Tags: Retail
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Third time charmed, I guess. That's my first thought when I hear that the latest outpost of La Maison Simons – and the first one outside Quebec – is finally opening at the West Edmonton Mall on Oct. 31. That comes after being postponed two times already from the original opening date at the beginning of September.

So when I finally have a chance to talk to Peter Simons, CEO of the Quebec retail chain -- founded in 1840 -- it’s the first question I ask.

Why the delays?

“Well,” says a somewhat sheepish Simons, “What we have envisioned for the Edmonton store is very ambitious. And I guess I should have checked a bit more closely into the state of the Alberta labour market before committing to an opening date.”

A-ha, I think, so the booming Western economy and subsequent strain on the available labour market is what delayed the store opening for about two months. I suppose the flip side of that coin is that there are maybe a lot of Alberta fashionistas with money in their pockets who will flock to the store.

Was the delay worth the wait? Simons certainly thinks so.

From a stunning art installation by the acclaimed Canadian architect Philip Beesley -- a canopy of undulating crystalline columns suspended within a glass cube that responds to human movement -- to 118,000 square feet of shopping and retail space, Simons cut no corners in its Western expansion.

“I think people are going to be very impressed with just how unique the Simons experience is,” he tells me.

And of course, getting into the West Edmonton Mall location before U.S. competitors – Nordstrom on the higher end, Target aiming for the cheap-chic market – helps give Simons a kick-start in expanding beyond the Quebec market, which has been its mainstay since its inception.

Most Canadians who know Simons know it only from their visits to Montreal and Quebec City. (Some apparently like it that way – one of my colleagues tells me he would be outed as a Simons shopper if the store ever opened in Toronto, since his friends right now don’t know where he gets his ubercool fashion sensibility.).

And certainly, La Maison Simons is a Quebec retail icon.

In 1840, 17-year-old John Simons, son of Scottish immigrants (and the current CEO’s namesake Peter Simons) opens a tiny dry-goods shop in Quebec City. He is said to have made the return trip between Canada and Europe more than 70 times during his life in order to stock his store.

That sense of staying ahead of the fashion curve has stayed with the retailer as it developed into a junior fashion department store chain with seven stores in Quebec -- Montreal, Laval, St. Bruno, Sherbrooke, and three in Quebec City. It’s also unusual for a department store in that it sells only fashions and home accessories, and doesn’t, for example, have the first floor filled with the perfume counters, the staple of most department stores.

Will the model work outside Quebec?

Given the sluggish economy and the ultra-competitive nature of Canadian retail -- especially with the impending arrival of Nordstrom and Target and a rejuvenated Hudson’s Bay now seeking to go public again -- it won’t be easy.

But Simons is convinced that shoppers want more than just the ability to buy things at a store. They want the whole experience – design, service, and high-end brands or less expensive, but no less edgy, private label fashions.

So where to next for Simons?

Well, CEO Peter Simons tells me that they’re always looking for options for expansion, with places like Vancouver and Toronto being the most likely stops. Rumour has it that Simons is among those retailers interested in Oxford Properties' proposed new downtown Toronto shopping centre that would go along with convention, office and residential hotel space (and possibly a casino).

My suggestion, one that I have been vocalizing since my years covering retailing for The Financial Post and Canadian Business Magazine, is doing something with that mammoth Sears store at Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Given what I see as anemic traffic (and likely sales) in that store, it’s ripe for reconfiguring so that more destination retailers can fit into the space-limited Toronto landmark. (Sources suggest that Sears isn’t willing to give in to Cadillac Fairview’s offer to buy out its lease to do just that – right now, it pays minimal rent to Cadillac as the anchor retailer in the mall).

My secret Simons shopper friend may not like the idea of the Quebec chain landing in Toronto, but I think many other shoppers here would say: “bring it on.”

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