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. 

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