It’s mid-October, and Peter Simons is at West Edmonton Mall, the first site of a Simons department store outside Quebec. The hubbub around him is not throngs of shoppers, alas, but crews engaged in ongoing construction. Simons says he’s been paying 250 retail staff for eight weeks, but the outlet has yet to make a sale. Opening day has been pushed back—again—due to the shortage of building trades.
Today, though, the CEO knows he’s close, hoping for a Halloween day opening. Slim, greying and, at six-foot-five, taller than most people on the planet, 48-year-old Simons runs the business with his brother Richard. The current generation of Simonses heads a chain that started in 1840 with a dry goods and import store in Quebec City. The Simons brand has been a retail force in Quebec ever since, transforming itself into an eclectic, fashion-first department store in the 1950s and ’60s. There are seven stores in the province and plans for an eighth on Montreal Island. Despite its longevity and place in the hearts of Quebec shoppers (Is there any other place for ladies’ hosiery?) the name is little known elsewhere.
It’s time that changed, not just for Simons but for Canadian consumers too, says Paul McElhone, executive director of the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing. “The problem in Canada has been that department stores didn’t know what the hell they were,” he says. “It led to confusion about brand and consumer expectations.” Especially in prosperous Alberta, it feels like an old-school retail experience is tough to come by. Some department stores seem bereft of staff. Phones ring unanswered, and clothes litter the floor. Just when we wondered if department stores were dead, Simons arrives on the scene—ahead of touted American chains Target and Nordstrom.
Simons sets itself apart on the experiential aspect of shopping, appealing to young-ish, fashion-conscious shoppers who appreciate high style, but shop at a number of price points. The 115,000-square-foot WEM site boasts one-of-a-kind art and architecture. Simons hopes to build on its reputation as tops in customer service. But McElhone says the same things that make Edmonton the obvious choice for Simons’ first foray out of Quebec also present the retailer challenges beyond construction delays.
“We have $80 [billion] to $120 billion [being invested] in the oilsands, unemployment is 4% and we have the youngest, best-educated population in the country, earning higher wages,” McElhone says. There’s also no provincial sales tax. “As a retailer, would you come here first? Or go to southern Ontario?” Albertans love to shop—per capita spending here is the highest of all the provinces—but the low unemployment rate also makes a top-notch retail sales force tough to keep. McElhone hopes the cachet the Simons brand introduces will help.
Peter Simons aspires to continued expansion in English Canada, but it’s tricky. “A store needs at least 80,000 square feet,” he says. Incredibly, given the decline of department stores generally, retail space like this is hard to come by. Malls often house large retailers who have signed agreements of first refusal, allowing existing department stores to veto competitors’ proposals.
“One of the reasons we were attracted to West Edmonton Mall,” says Simons, “is that the Ghermezians [owners of the mall] are a family-run, entrepreneurial company too. We’re comfortable with them as partners.
“We are here for the long term, bringing the most complex fashion assortment in the country,” he adds. “We want to build beautiful things.”