When you walk into a La Maison Simons store, the space feels airy and inviting. Depending on which of the retailer’s branches you enter, you might notice a giant bow-tie sculpture by Douglas Coupland (Squamish nation territory in British Columbia), a three-storey mural by Maya Gohill that stretches from the top to the bottom of your escalator ride (Calgary), or a green roof complete with beehives (Mississauga, Old Quebec, and Laval).
These curated shopping spaces are a far cry from what some consumers might associate with department stores: dim lights, overcrowded clothing rails, and sales associates that are nowhere to be found. For many Canadians, the first department store that jumps to mind is Hudson’s Bay. The once-massive empire is now a shell of its former self, with the company shutting down four of its stores in the past two years, including locations in Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Dorval, Quebec. Other large stores in Canada, like Sears and Eaton’s, have succumbed to what writers and analysts have called the “death of the department store.” Meanwhile, across the border, Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus have reshaped the way they operate following bankruptcy filings. It’s not hard to see why: the brick-and-mortar landscape was struggling even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Amazon and other online sellers have only made buying online more appealing in the past few years.
And yet Simons seems to have avoided most of this. In the past five years, the Quebec-based retailer has opened three new stores and a major distribution centre. The company plans to open its first Atlantic location, in Halifax, by early 2024. Simons isn’t technically a department store—it offers most departments (including clothing, accessories, and homeware) though not all the ones needed to earn the title and currently has only sixteen stores across the country—but retail analyst Craig Patterson suggests it’s certainly able to compete with its peers in the space. What’s more surprising, however, is how a large retailer like Simons has been able to remain relevant. As analysts predict the downfall of the department store, has the Canadian retailer managed to figure out the formula to not just stay afloat but actually succeed and expand?
Simons has been around since 1840, when it was originally founded as a dry goods shop in Quebec City by John Simons. John was said to have made seventy-two trips across the Atlantic to get a hold of Scottish and Irish linen and knitwear. It was only in the 1960s that the family-owned business began creating in-house brands, most notably Twik, which was inspired by the English fashion icon Twiggy, and is still manufactured and marketed to youth today.
When Peter Simons, the former owner and CEO of La Maison Simons, took the reins of the company from his father, Donald Gordon Simons, in the mid-1990s, his goal was simple. “I was trying to create a unique product and service offerings for our customers. And to do that in the last two decades, although I don’t believe in scale, I felt that we needed to be a little bit bigger in order to tap into a huge creative ecosystem,” he says. Unlike other retailers in its category, Simons’s ethos was never to become a mammoth but rather to take a steadier route. Opening one store at a time is less risky and more achievable at the company’s current size.
Simons’s more recent openings include locations in Quebec City in 2018, Calgary and Edmonton in 2017, Ottawa and Mississauga in 2016, and another Montreal store in 2021. If it feels like something is missing here, you’re right. Despite having two spaces in Ontario, Simons has yet to make a place for itself in what is arguably the largest economic hub in the country: Toronto.
The company is scouting for spots in Toronto and Vancouver. (It was reported in 2015 that Simons was en route to joining either Scarborough Town Centre or Yorkdale, but neither came to fruition.) Patterson suspects the delay was caused by Nordstrom scooping up so many potential anchor locations shortly after Sears closed down. (The retailer currently has thirteen locations across Canada.) The other reason, of course, is that Simons is a family-owned business: there is only so much money such a company can dole out at a time.
Despite its limited locations, Simons understands how to make its environments feel current. Other large retailers have not kept up with that approach, at least not outside of their flagship stores. The most recent revamp of a Hudson’s Bay location would have been two years ago: the makeover of the Room, its luxury department, in downtown Vancouver. The flagship location, on Queen Street in Toronto, saw ongoing expansion and renovation in the ’70s, 2000s, and 2010s. Other than that, though, many of its nonflagship branches struggle to stay above water, with some spaces that feel outdated and get little attention.
Perhaps, Simons understands how to make in-person shopping more enjoyable. Rahul Mehta, a customer who often shops at the Square One location in Mississauga, says the design of the building itself makes him want to stick around in the shop a little longer. “There’s a bit of a small plaza, there’s bike parking, which is actually maintained, there’s a generous sidewalk, and there’s a sense that you can dwell in the space outside the building without having to spend anything—that is massively important to me.” Though Simons didn’t directly contribute to the development of the plaza, it did aim to support it architecturally. The white concrete, for example, was chosen to bring and reflect light into the space. Both Square One and Simons received a Healthy by Design award from the city of Mississauga for elements like service proximity, land-use mix, and street connectivity.
The thing about the department store is that its branding has always been tied to experience. Think of Hudson’s Bay’s Christmas windows, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or the Santa Claus parades Eaton’s held while clinging on to its last loyal customers before bankruptcy. The idea isn’t new, but Simons has championed it by doing it in reverse—come for the clothes and stay for the art. And, as e-commerce models become more popular with consumers, the need for an inviting space is more important than ever.
“Retailers are recognizing that it needs to be more than just displaying clothing or merchandise,” says Jenna Jacobson, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. “If the in-store experience [is] to compel people to come back into the store, to shop in the store, [customers are] going to want something more.” In that sense, she explains, the in-store shopping experience becomes a brand-building opportunity, with customers going in to reignite their connection with a specific brand. One way to do this is through “omni channelling,” a business strategy to have multiple “touchpoints” for transactions (website, brick-and-mortar store, marketplace, restaurant, or cafe).
For Simons, that value comes from the art and architecture of the space. Other successful examples include Aritzia’s A-OK Cafe on Bloor Street in Toronto, says Jacobson. According to an article from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, real estate developers are working on having more restaurants within retail areas to appeal to millennial consumers, in keeping with the idea of creating “stop spots” for consumers. The taglines for the Aritzia cafe are “If you like your coffee with a side of shopping, come hang out” and “Don’t let snack-free shopping happen to you.”
It seems that what Simons lacks in locations, it makes up for with strong e-commerce. Wow Digital named it the best online customer experience in Canada in 2019 and 2020, and in 2021, it ranked in the top three, according to a survey of 14,000 participants conducted by the same company. The survey ranked the company’s app first, a win based on its “visual appeal, the personalization of the customer experience and the presence of interesting additional content.”
And some customers say the experience of shopping online feels similar to that of shopping in store. “I like that basically everything you see online is [the same] in person. Some stores feel like it’s two different stores that you’re shopping at,” says Nicole Mensah, a twenty-one-year-old student from Brampton, Ontario. She also appreciates the speedy shipping, something not all customers have been lucky enough to have due to supply-chain disruptions.
Simons opened a $300 million distribution centre in 2020, and the aim is to have it automated in the near future, with a robotics plan in the works already. According to data company PitchBook, Simons received a total of $215 million in funding for the centre, including $27 million from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Quebec, $17 million from Investissement Quebec and an $81 million loan from the Government of Canada. Distribution centres are a key part of a business’s ability to fulfill customer orders. They serve as the bridge between suppliers and customers and allow companies to store, pick out, and pack their products, all in the same facility. Basically, it makes online shopping gets easier for everybody, and you get your package quicker. “In terms of e-commerce [and their] app, and everything that Simons has done, the retailer really is looking to the future and how consumers are going to be shopping online,” Patterson says.
Another plus of the website that seems to be hitting a home run with customers is the appearance of commitment to sustainability and ethics. “For any department store I want to shop at, I’m looking for their sustainability strategy,” says Mehta. “I’m looking [to see if] they highlight and support small businesses, especially small Canadian businesses, and it’s front and centre on the Simons homepage, which is really cool.”
While that’s a clear motivation for shoppers, greenwashing in the fashion industry has become paramount. A report by the Changing Markets Foundation found that 39 percent of the products it assessed (across brands like ASOS, Gucci, and Zara) came with sustainability-related tags such as “eco” or “recycled,” and more than half of those products failed to meet the UK Competition and Markets Authority’s guidelines on avoiding greenwashing.
Good on You, a website and app that grades brands on their environmental and social performance, says that Simons “does not communicate sufficient information about its labour policies” and points out that it does not provide any evidence for minimizing packaging and use of hazardous chemicals or for water reductions. So, while the brand isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly, its “homegrown” branding seems to be working with customers.
That emphasis on Canada first—Canadian made, Canadian brands, Canadian owned, and Canadian art—is somewhat rare. Titans like HBC and Nordstrom may dominate the playing field when it comes to being a household name, but they’re owned by international stakeholders. Somewhat unbeknownst to many, the Bay has been owned by a Bermuda holding company for almost three years now. Nordstrom is just its American implant competitor. One could argue that Holt Renfrew holds strong as a Canadian-owned business, but its offerings are simply out of reach for most Canadians. What Simons offers consumers is a chance at identity that the others don’t.
The domestic desire to shop Canadian is real. According to a survey by the Business Development Bank of Canada, 45 percent of participants had made “a specific effort to buy Canadian in recent months.” On top of that, another 24 percent made an effort to buy products specifically made in their province. The pandemic made that desire even stronger. In 2021, Interac released a survey revealing that 75 percent of Canadians said the pandemic made “shopping and supporting businesses in their community more important.” The same survey said that 55 percent of Canadians claimed their desire to support local businesses led them to “shift their spending by shopping closer to home.”
The approach has been important in capturing a young demographic of shoppers. Generation Z—customers around Mensah’s age—tends to be a socially conscious group of shoppers. According to a recent study, from First Insight, most Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy sustainable brands and are even willing to spend 10 percent more for sustainable products.
Peter Simons stepped down from his role this past March and is now the company’s chief merchant. He also continues to sit on Simons’s advisory board as well as family council. The new CEO, Bernard Leblanc, is the first person from outside the Simons family to run the company since its inception more than 100 years ago, though he’s been involved with the company since the mid-1990s.
He’s aware that there’s still work to be done in increasing its national footprint—and maybe one day even expanding it south of the border. But there’s “no rush to do so,” he said when we spoke in September. “We want to do things right rather than just push growth.”
He also added that the company has been investing in a national campaign for brand awareness and is excited for the Halifax opening in 2024 to complete Simons’s coast-to-coast presence. But the end goal remains the same: “Not to be the largest in the industry but potentially the most thoughtful.”