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Retail innovation in Canada — Is that an oxymoron?

Retail is in a period of disruption, yet some Canadian brands continue to thrive

Recently, we at J.C. Williams Group have been consumed with the idea of “retail innovation.” As partners in the Ebeltoft Group of companies, we produce a yearly report on retail innovations from around the world. In our latest version, Retail Innovations 10, we identified seven important global trends – many enabled by technology. The interest in the topic of retail innovation has never been greater!

So does Canada have retail innovation? We think so. Here are some examples from Canadian retailers both big and small.

  • Loblaws‘ Maple Leaf Gardens store – this massive urban store in the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens building (think Stanley Cup winning teams and Beatles concerts in Toronto) is a laboratory for one of Canada’s largest retail chains. Here, Loblaws has introduced its amazing wall of cheese in their fresh food hall. The store team is challenged to constantly try new things and to experiment with new suppliers. If it works, they use the learnings first in their other Inspire stores and then roll it out to the chain if it has legs. If it doesn’t work, they learn from it and celebrate the fact that they tried.
  • Young and Tae – this is my smallest example. It’s an individual store that allows customers to customize their shoes. Here’s how it works.
  1. You select your favourite style and try on the shoes in the store to find your perfect fit
  2. You choose the materials for the top, bottom and inside the shoe
  3. You select the heel height
  4. You order the shoe, which will be delivered to the store

There are literally hundreds of combinations. How do they do it? This entrepreneurial young couple happen to have family in Korea who are major shoe producers. This is the customization trend from Retail Innovations 10 that we have seen globally as customers search for their own individual spin on their look.

  • Frank & Oak – this is a medium-sized retailer that started out as an online player that signs up members who have a common interest. In this case, they are relatively fashionable males who are interested in arts and culture as well as interesting facial hair stylings. Go to their store on a Saturday and you will be amazed that there are so many stylish men hanging out in the same place. Note that their is a café and a barber in the store to ensure that this is a retailer that is not just selling product; Frank & Oak is a retailer that has a role in this customer’s life. Also, it should be noted that Frank & Oak is selling internationally—truly important for a retailer that has such specific appeal. In Retail Innovations 10, this trend is called curated collections.

What do these innovators all have in common? A clear benefit for the customer.

Retail is an industry that is being challenged by a period of disruption that is creating winners and losers throughout the world. While there is a tendency for us to focus on the losers, there will be lots of winners. Many of those winners will be Canadian retailers.

Maureen Atkinson is the senior partner in charge of market research at J.C. Williams Group

Photography by Canadian Press
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