Saturday, September 04, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Improving Retail in Montreal (Especially Retail Owned by HBC)

Earlier posts considered ways to improve highways and street- and metroscapes.

Another way to improve the ambience of Montreal is to improve the retail environment.  Montreal is the retailing mecca of Canada; many of the largest retailers in the country have their home offices here.

But what about nurturing the next generation of retailers and distinguishing the Montreal retail scene from those of other Canadian and international cities?  One way to do this is to provide incentives that encourage local designers of clothing, home accessories, and furniture to open shops and workshops on the key shopping streets of Ste-Catherine, St-Denis, St-Laurent, and de Maisonneuve, so that a uniquely Montreal character  is extended to the stores, further distinguishing these streets as retail destinations from regional malls in both character and retail mix.  To be honest, there’s a certain sameness from mall to mall and providing incentives to people to open stores that visitors cannot find elsewhere could make these areas more “exclusive.”  

But if we’re really going to improve the retail scene in Montreal, we need to start with one of the largest and most depressing retailers on the earth:  the HBC Company.  They may sell Olympic merchandise and Armani jeans, but more than an opportunity to buy them, a visit t most Bay stores inspires in me—and many other shoppers—a strong need for anti-depressants.

(In the Bay’s and Zeller’s defense, Sears Canada stores are, on the whole, even more depressing to visit, but they seem so far beyond repair that it’s not worth mentioning them.)

Although both the Bay and Zellers have made efforts to better distinguish themselves from one another in the past few years, and to refresh themselves with new brands and merchandise, the stores themselves have not been seriously refreshed and create a depressing, difficult shopping experience.

Reasonably busy Bay stores just plain look old.  For example, the upper levels of the downtown Bay stores in Montreal and Toronto have water-spotted ceiling tiles, difficult to read and non-distinctive signage, and aging escalators, among their other physical features.

(The store might have finally noticed these problems in Montreal.  The downtown store seems to be getting a small facelift.  For example, the fourth floor—housewares—seems to have discovered that it has some interesting lines and real windows and rearranged the floor to emphasize and highlight these assets. Now, if the store could replace the unsightly covering surrounding the first floor exterior of the building….)

But suburban and downtown stores out West make these stores look like thriving centers of activity in comparison.  The most depressing is the store in downtown Winnipeg, which looks as spacious as the Prairies and as deserted as many western farming towns. Suburban stores, of which the ones at Rockland Centre and Carrefour Laval are typical, are massive caverns with similarly difficult and non-distinctive signage and do little to visually divide the stores in to distinct departments.

Even if these stores could fix the problems of their non-descript, confusing, and cavernous structures, they’d still have to deal with their drab merchandise.  Regardless of season, the dominant colors on display seem to be various shades of navy blue, gray, tan, and similarly neutral colors.

No matter how drab the Bay, HBC shoppers can always count on Zellers to make the Bay look cheerful.  Its narrow aisles are crowded aisles with merchandise that looks like it was picked over by customers and never put back in place by staff.  The linoleum floors with waxy yellow buildup only enhance that feeling.  

The deep red and white color palette of the stores, which enlivens the attitude in American rival Target, is sufficiently different in shade from Target that it merely enhances the drabness of merchandise whose pallet sticks to funeral blacks and nondescript tans.

If the HBC is truly Canada’s store, Canadians either deserve an anti-depressant or brighter, more lively stores.  They need new concepts.

Visits to stores overseas provide inspiration.  The Bay, for example, might take merchandising lessons from de Bijenkorf in Amsterdam, Printemps and BHV in Paris, and KaDeWe in Berlin.  Given that Montreal prides itself on its European character, the Bay might remodel itself on European models.  Apparel would boast more color (more than just design) and home accessories and furniture would more  strongly emphasize design.  The stores might feature epicurean and magazine departments.  In-store cafes should be moved to highly visible, highly trafficked areas in the store, rather than relegated to low traffic areas tucked in the back of the store.  (Getting rid of the Coffee Depot on the bottom floor of the downtown Bay in Montreal went against this principle).  In fact, these eateries might have separate entries from the street—as well as entries to the store—to draw in traffic.  And the stores might feature specially commissioned artwork for sale, as did Galeria Kauthof in Berlin which, if nothing else, added visual variety to the space.

The physical space should not only be upgraded, but its appearance lightened up and made to appear spacious within departments, and with stronger physical distinctions between departments.  Signage should be improved a la Macy’s in the US so shoppers could more easily navigate the store on their own.

But these are general suggestions for improving the Bay.  Here are some specific ones for fixing the downtown Bay in downtown Montreal, which can be accessed through the McGill Metro Station, which—as was mentioned earlier--badly needs a renovation of its own.

  • Move the food, cards, and other fun stuff to the Metro level and, in the process, make it more upscale so it is both more pleasant to visit and visually distinct from the repetitious food courts elsewhere in the underground city.  The Bay on Queen Street in downtown Toronto does this toa a point, though the visual display could be significantly enhanced.  
  • Move electronics and sporting goods to share a floor with the Men’s department, as department stores in Peru seem to do.  What a smart move, too.  The street level floor has plenty of floor space for all of this—even if it must be stuffed with cosmetics.  
  • More prominently display the museum collection that’s hidden at the back of the fifth floor behind the children’s clothes.  Make it a destination worth visiting on its own and that (a)  proudly promotes the heritage of the store and (b) pushes the HBC “Signature” shop.  
  • Speaking of the Signature Shop: designers could take the merchandise further, but sales won’t improve unless the pricing does.  The HBC point blanket design may be distinctly Canadian, but Canadians and tourists would appreciate it more if it more of a Bay price point, rather than a Holt-Renfrew one.  
  • The Bay is launching a few stores-within-a-store, like the Emporio Armani.  Carry out the concept to the entire store, instead of one mass of open merchandise.  This would help further the distinction from Zellers.  
  • Before remodeling the housewares floor, the section needs a core concept, both for an overall look and merchandising, as well as the products within.  Think Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn. Right now, the housewares department looks more like a Bed, Bath, and Beyond clone already used in Deco Decouverte, sans the “As sold on TV” section.  The Nespresso shops within shops are a start, but only work for one part.  And the idea needs to be extended to the nonbranded sections of the department.  
  • In addition, as a store-within-the-housewares-tore, the Bay might also consider adding an urban department to its downtown Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver stores that’s like the CB2 brand in the U.S.
  • Make the furniture store more dreamy—have mini-apartments in it instead of endless living rooms with bland selections of furniture.  
  • The outlet store on the top floor needs to stop taking its visual cues from Village des Valuers and Renaissance Fripe Prix.  Make it a fun place to shop—even if the merchandise is going to be put on a rack, “rack it” with style.  Each year, the staff transforms this area into a dreamy holiday store; they can do it the rest of the year, too, even if the merchandise is intended for fast removal.  
  • Replace the unsightly awning that covers the outside of the first floor of the Bay building.   It brings to the outside all of the visual merchandising limitations of the inside.  

The same concepts could be applied to suburban stores.  Consider the ones at Centre Rockland and Carrefour Laval.  They feel like a cross between a warehouse and a store that hasn’t been updated since 1986.   Worse, both are in upscale malls that have been remodeled in the past 5 years.  The could be improved by:

  • Adding a second and third set of escalators (or a glass elevator) to facilitate more movement among floors
  • Distinguish departments with completely different visual identities—including different ceiling and floor treatments, instead of a monotonous treatment throughout the store
  • Making designer departments even more distinctively stores-within-stores
  • Adapting the same suggestions for kitchen and linens made for the downtown store, by providing them separate and complete visual identities
  • Create a separate identity for the gift shop areas
  • Convert the cafeteria in the Laval store to a cafĂ© and move it to the most prominent location in the store
  • Put electronics and sporting goods next to men’s clothing
  • Turn the service areas into a hubs of activity that can also generate interest in purchasing among waiting people

I’ve got a few more suggestions for the HBC Corporation.

As they should dramatically improve the Bay, Zellers is in desperate need of a similar upgrade.  Let’s start with the merchandise itself.   Like Target, Zellers could distinguish itself as cheap chic, but could use Canadian designers. The Alfred Sung collection is a step in the right direction, but it’s just one—and a baby step at that.  Zellers needs to do more.  And Zellers may need to distinguish the merchandise in its urban, suburban, and exurban stores if it feels that cheap chic is too much for some of its customers.

Zellers could also take a lead from Target by getting top name manufacturers to develop low end lines just for the store.

But none of this merchandise upgrade would help sales if Zellers doesn’t make the shopping experience more pleasant.  That Walmart offers a more pleasant shopping experience speaks volumes about the depressing nature of the Zellers stores.

The space needs a major makeover.  The chain needs to completely re-think its color palette.  While the red is reminiscent of the Canadian flag, in the excessive doses in which it’s used in Zellers stores, that becomes more of a liability than a patriotic asset; less red would be more.  And floors in all of Zeller’s stores need to be replaced.  Whatever the replacement surface, it can’t develop waxy yellow buildup.  Pergo simulated hardwood, as is used in Walmart, might make a good surface.

A remodel of the space could also result in a remodel of the attitude.  That  most Zellers stores—even the newest—look like workrooms in a funeral parlour, it’s not surprising that the staff exhibits a maudlin attitude.

I’ve primarily picked on the HBC stores for two reasons.  One is personal orientation; given a choice, I always prefer a department store.  One is historic; the Bay is Canada’s oldest corporation.  Unfortunately, its stores look historic, too, but not in a good way.  Perhaps an HBC staffer will read these suggestions and try some of them out.  
Next post:  Getting down to work. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Street- and Metro-scapes

The Gaudi-designed benches and lamp posts decorating the Passeij Gracia in Barcelona not only contributed to the character and beauty of a major and elegant street, but made we wish we had similar streetscapes in Montreal.  For all of my complaining, Montreal is actually one of the most unique and vibrant cities in North America, has a remarkably vibrant street life, and deserves to honor and enhance it with art-quality streetscapes like in Barcelona.

In this case, Montreal has a good record already.  The entryway to the city and the Quartier Interionationale make strong visual statements at street level.  The recently remodeled Squares Dorchester and Victoria offer similar statements.  Even streets that are further off from the heart of the city have been revitalized, like rue Fleury in Ahunsic and rue Chabenel (currently under re-construction).

But can be done, partly because a city needs to constantly rework itself to maintain the interest of its citizens and visitors and partly because some areas need strong attention .

The area needing the strongest attention is the McGill Metro Station: the most widely used station in the city and a congregating spot for tourists.  The most polite description of the station is that if it were me, my mother would be commenting on my poor appearance.

Let’s not even mention the water stains and panhandlers.  The station looks like it was half re-modeled and someone never finished the job.  That’s partly the result of the fact that most of the retail in the station was remodeled to reflect the current “look” of the Metro, with lots of light and chrome, but the rest of the station was not.

It’s  bad enough that the color schemes clash (and that they recently repainted some of the columns in the station to heighten the clash), but with some of the older walls in the station hallways are torn up.

Montreal fancies itself a design city (we were even designated as such) but this station looks like a candidate for the public works version of “What Not to Wear.”  At the least, it looks shabby and bad but, at the most, it makes a lousy impression on visitors and citizens alike.

Beyond fixing the problems at the McGill station, the Metro has broader issues to address:

  • The Metro has several visual identities, especially for the STM itself.  It needs to pick one and upgrade all of the signage to match.
  • If the Metro wants to raise funds, it might start by installing vending machines for food, drinks, newspapers, and even everyday supplies.  On the one hand, they might compete with the convenience stores, but most of them keep such limited hours that vending machines offer added convenience.  The Istanbul and Tokyo systems, among others, offer these vending machines.  
  • Although we have no idea when the new Metro cars will come into service, perhaps they will be able to report time and temperature, as well as information about the next stop.  The Istanbul and Hong Kong systems, among others, provide this enhanced level of information on  the trains.  

Beyond fixing this problem station, the city might consider taking a Quartier International  approach to the streetscapes of the three four most prominent streets:  rue St.-Denis between de Maisonneuve and St. Joseph, de Maisonneuve between Berri and Atwater, Ste-Catherine between de Lormier and Atwater, and Rene Levesque, between de Lormier and Atwater.

Each of these streets carries much pedestrian and, in the cases of St.-Denis and Rene Levesque, auto traffic.  Enhancing the streetscapes could add to the characters of these streets and, in the cases of the first three, contribute to improved retail business, especially along de Maisonneuve, whose role as a major retail street does not immediately come to mind.

Under ideal circumstances, the streets might be widened but that’s not realistic.  At the least, the sidewalks might be widened.

On those widened streets, the city might install unique benches and street lights, as well as clearly visible—though distinctively designed—street signs.  Hold competitions for emerging artists and designers; use the designs of the winners and display the designs of all the finalists.
Next set of suggestions: Improving Retail in Montreal (Especially Retail Owned by HBC)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Highways

The next several posts explore specific ways of enhancing the ambience of Montreal, based on ideas generated by visiting other places.

  • Suggestions for highways
  • Suggestions for street- and metro-scapes
  • Suggestions for retail, especially HBC retail outlets
Montreal Suggestions 1:  Improving Highways 
Although most of the attention these days if focused on replacing the Turcot interchange (and a quick look at the bridges that look like they’ve got the highway equivalent of osteoporosis, that’s a good thing), the next set of intersections that demand attention are the intersections of Autoroutes 40 and 15, and 40 and 25.

The same core problem faces both—whoever designed these did not seem to think about the people who would actually have to drive through them.  In the designers’ defense, they might have been constrained by space.  But their solutions only managed to create a traffic nightmare.

The simpler to fix is the intersections of 40 and 25, which mixes highway access roads (where drivers go fast) with city streets (where speeds are constrained to 40 km/hour).  The two don’t mingle well.  The worst of this is the entrance to Autoroute 40 west from Galleries Anjou, where drivers must go through a couple of residential streets to get onto the highway.  That’s neither safe nor quiet for the residents, but it’s neither obvious nor well-marked for the driver.

A similar issue arises for drivers trying to merge from Autoroute 40 onto Autoroute 25; rather than exiting on a dedicated ramp, drivers merge on an active service road, with all sorts of incoming and outgoing traffic.  Yes, I know that speeds are reduced there, but the potential for an accident is still higher than it should be.

But the more serious safety hazard and, more basically, guaranteed traffic jam, is the merge between Autoroutes 40 and 15.  Part of the problem is that 15 is split into two roads, separated by about 2 km.  So there’s a stretch of highway that has to serve a combined roadway.

Making it worse in both directions, drivers on Autoroute 15 always merge onto Autoroute 40 on the right, then have a short distance to get over to a left exit onto the other segment of Autoroute 15.  A drive on Autoroute 40 is thus blocked streams of vehicles merging left who are merely trying to continue their journey on Autoroute 15.  Not only is this a built-in slow-down, it’s an accident waiting to happen.

But most of all, this situation is completely avoidable.  (1) Even though the stretch of highway needs to accommodate 6 lanes of traffic (3 from Autoroute 40, 3 more from Autoroute 15), the road only widens for a brief half-kilometer stretch—and the, only by 1 lane.   Simply widening the road would address the capacity issue.  Moving all exits to the right side of the roadway in both directions would solve the merging problem.

Then there’s one last problem: the recently re-worked L’Acadie Circle, which was redesigned to accommodate some of this traffic.  When it works, it’s OK.  But it tends to flood easily.  It sounds like the problem results from the practical issue of inadequate drainage, made worse by a failure of city and provincial roadway officials coordinating their work.  Each blames the other.  From a driver’s perspective, the bottom line performance is that both parties look incompetent in their inability to design a roadway that stays reasonably dry and they look petty when they would rather expend energy blaming the other party than solving the problem for the taxpayers who pay both sets of salaries.  (But this isn’t new; the failure to communicate among units about  work on Boulevard St. Laurent highlights the organizational communication problems in governmental units.)

One last suggestion:  it would be great if the powers-that-be could get their act together and begin construction of the rail link from the airport to the heart of the city.  For a city that wants to present itself as forward thinking in terms of urban transit, this is a glaring hole in our traffic landscape.

Furthermore, given that the airport is relatively close to the city, that the tunnels for the train link are already available, and that a track already exists, the only problem is the same problem that plagues the Turcot, St. Laurent, L’Acadie, and nearly every other major transportation project facing this city.  As I understand these projects, they’re all technically feasible technically and economically; but parochial, self-centered communications steers each of these projects down a bum path.

If we want better communications, instead of hiring another engineering firm, perhaps we ought to hire an organizational communicator to plan a project communication strategy, and professional facilitator to ensure that the communications move in a positive direction.
Next set of suggestions: Enhancing the Montreal Street- and Metro-scapes

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Montreal (Hometown 4)

Museums are integral to Montreal in a way that they’re not integral to most other cities.  OK—most cities have museums and the museums may be related to the culture of the city.  But going to these museums does not necessarily seem to be a part of the city culture, and that’s what’s different from Montreal.  Going to the museum is  a part of the local culture in Montreal, and that’s what makes it unique.

And Montreal makes its museums worth visiting.  On the whole, they tend to be smaller, more specialized, and more intimate—“boutique museums” as I heard one travel magazine describe them.  The smaller size makes visiting the museums and experiencing the exhibitions seem like a more realistic goal.  Even our major art museum, the Musee des Beaux Arts, feels smaller than counterparts in other cities, though its storied history and strong collection makes it no less significant.  In contrast, just the thought of visiting the Louvre inspires museum fatigue.

Similarly, Montreal’s museums act as a community.  They don’t just collaborate to offer a museum pass to see all of the museums.  They collaborate on events—events that no other city in the US or Canada offers (at least, to the best of my knowledge). One is Nuit Blanche, a Saturday night at the end of the winter High Lights Festival during which many of the museums in the city core are open all night long.  The other is a free day to visit museums, in observance of the International Committee on Museum’s Annual Museum Day.  Not only are all museums open, but most hold special events to attract visitors.  The city supports both events by offering free or expanded public transportation.

The boutique-ness of the museums, along with the spirit of the community, are unique among communities in North America.  Rather than trying to duplicate the mega- and over-architected museums of other communities, this one should strengthen its uniqueness by adding to the collection of boutique museums, enhancing the boutique character of existing museums, and providing some unity and structure to the entire collection.

Suggested enhancements include:

  • The Montreal Story.  A rework and expansion of the Montreal History Centre, whose implicit purpose seems to be introducing the city of Montreal.  It also seems to implicitly link the stories of Pointe-a-Calliere (which, informally, seems to focus on francophone Montreal history and events until the mid-1800s) and the McCord Museum (which, informally, seems to focus on anglophone Montreal history and events from the 1800s through the 1900s).  A rework would make the implicit explicit.  The reworked Centre could have an audiovisual presentation that formally and emotionally introduces Montreal, a three-part permanent exhibit—one that introduces the neighborhoods of Montreal, one that introduces the history of Montreal, and a third that invites visitors to continue learning about Montreal at our other museums.  A temporary exhibition space could highlight the contributions of Montrealers and unique aspects of Montreal culture.   
  • Museum of Montreal Cultures, which would provide a single home to showcase the different cultures that comprise the population of Montreal.  This would provide a new take on the traditional identity museum because, rather than one group telling its story, this single museum would tell the stories of several groups. In the process of doing so, it could explore not only what’s unique in each of these stories—but also the universality of those experiences.  The museum could have three groups of galleries.  One would be a series of several small galleries that would provide several groups with an opportunity to tell their stories, with permanent galleries provided to the two founding communities of this province—the First Peoples and the French-Canadians.  Two benefits of rotating the groups presented in that set of galleries: to generate recurring visits and to ensure the continued freshness of those galleries.  The next group of galleries would explore what’s common in all experiences: the common social, economic, political, and religious marginalization that drive people to seek new lives; the challenges of immigration and integrating into the community, contributing to the new community, and the challenge of retaining identity when surrounded by pressures to assimilate.  A third set of galleries would explore specific issues associated with cultures, from the controversial—like the challenge of peoples who are at war elsewhere in the world living in peace in this part of the world—to the safe—like expressions and customs from particular cultures that have been co-opted as “Montrealaise.”  
  • Natural Science Collection, a complement to the Biodome, Jardin Botanique, Insectarium, and upcoming Planetarium in the Parc Maisonneuve area.  Already, this group of institutions is one of the most unique and complete natural science exhibitions in the world.  But the collection lacks is, a museum that not only explains the natural science underlying these living collections—but also the history of science underlying this.  As its title suggests, the Natural Science Collection would focus on those goals.  Telling this history through the objects of current and historical scientific instruments, gems, and preserved specimens already in the collections in this province, this museum would explain larger issues in biology, chemistry, and physics, such as the origins of life, the chemistry of life, and geological processes.  The collection would also focus on the “art” of science—both in terms of the artistic forms and images found in natural science, as well as the art in scientific instruments.  Last, this collection would serve as an introduction to the other museums in this group.   
  • Montreal Science Centre.  With all of the life science institutions based in Parc Maisonneuve (or soon to be) this one looks increasingly isolated where it is.  Furthermore, with its emphasis on hands-on science exhibits—all of which are purchased off-the-rack—this institution, frankly, offers little unique to the cultural scene, but has an amazing location.  Furthermore, given Montreal’s excellent natural science museums, we don’t really need another one that tries to cover the same territory.  To make the museum more relevant, it should scrap the current abstract approach and rework itself with a more concrete one--as a museum that focuses on technology—especially technology that’s core to the Montreal experience.  In fact, like the museum I proposed for Atlanta, a re-worked mission for this one would be explaining the science underlying current and past industry in the city.  The Centre might even rename itself the Centre de Sciences et d’Industrie de Montreal.  It can use the technology as a springboard for explaining the underlying science.  Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors would be medical, gaming, maritime, and fashion technology.  The museum might also have an area for technologies that have come and gone, like printing technology and heavy manufacturing. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the dinner table to the school.  
  • Musee de Design du Quebec.  Building on the recent temporary exhibit at the Musee National des Beaux Arts in Quebec City, this museum would showcase Quebec design.  And it’s about time that Montreal had an institution that focuses on design other than architectural design (which is addressed by the Canadian Centre for Architecture). After all, the city has been declared a design city and has an annual design open house.  But we have nothing that preserves design artifacts, showcases it, and studies it.  The permanent exhibition could explore the major types of design: industrial, furniture, clothing, and even web and information design.  But the centerpiece of such a museum could be an exhibition on design thinking—the common thread that links the different types of design.  In addition, a few galleries would be set aside for changing exhibitions.
  • Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts, which would be presented as a series of museums, rather than a single one. Although it’s admittedly easier to control through a single entryway, on a practical level, it’s not working.  Visitors will enter on one side of the Sherbrooke merely to cross under the street to get to the other side, which often has a separate exterior entrance anyway.  Rather than approach this museum as a single department store—like the Bay—why not approach it as a series of stores-within-a-store—like the more engaging Ogilvy? 
  • One collection that deserves to be highlighted, and given its own special “museum within a museum” (which is more than a gallery—but a series of galleries with a permanent  collection on display and changing exhibitions) is the decorative arts collection. At one time, this was a separate museum collection that was merged with the Musee des Beaux Arts. Another set of collections that deserves greater attention through a “museum within a museum” are the collections on Asian and pre-Columbian art, displayed with special exhibitions of African art (such as the series of Sacred Africa exhibitions the museum has shown in the past few years), which get buried in the corners of the museum.

Next on the wishlist: Enhancing the ambience of Montreal.