Big Luxury Retailers in Vancouver are Reinventing Department Stores

Judging from the construction dust, luxury brands are thriving in a tepid economy by supersizing the boutique vibe

September 24, 2015

By Stacey McLachlan

Shoppers are literally lining up to gain access to mammoth luxury retailers. An estimated 2,000 shoppers waited outside of the Nordstrom Pacific Centre store on its opening day.

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Vancouver Magazine.

Let’s get one thing straight: despite inhabiting the shell of a department store, being described as a department store, and literally being a store with departments, Nordstrom is not, in fact, a department store. “We’re a big store with an escalator, but our foundation is as a fashion specialty store,” clarifies co-president Erik Nordstrom. The Seattle-based retailer opens its third Canadian location—a 230,000-square-foot, three-storey glass-and-steel marvel—this month, and now is a crucial time for branding.

Next-door Holt Renfrew also disputes the label. “We’re not going to buy like a department store or display like a department store. We’re going to shop the world,” explains Mark Derbyshire, president of Holt’s. “Last year we attended 164 runway shows. We introduced 35 new brands. And that’s because that’s what the people of Vancouver want to see in their shop.”

It’s no surprise these titans are keen to distance themselves from a descriptor they see as pejorative. Separating the wheat from the Wal-Marts will be key to high-end stores’ success. In a tough consumer economy, it’s hard to be a midlevel retailer. Target bailed on Canada after two halfhearted years; the carcasses of abandoned Sears locations are scattered across the country (or rebuilt as a Nordstrom, in Vancouver’s case); the Gap is set to close 140 North American stores by year’s end.

Yet luxury thrives. Before the dust from Nordstrom’s construction settled, Holt Renfrew began work on an expansion that will extend the showroom floor to 400,000 square feet. This summer, McArthur Glen Designer Outlets opened for business, slinging Armani and Coach just outside the airport. Saks Fifth Avenue is rumoured to be coming to town in the next few years.

“There’s a lot of talk of luxury in Vancouver, but there’s nothing new about it. It’s been alive and well and flourishing for a long time,” says Derbyshire. “We’re cultivating existing relationships but also seeing new customers, who are either new to the city or at that point where looking good and feeling great is now part of your life.” As the city’s population grows, so do the number of people who see value in high-end experiences.

Holt Renfrew owes much of its success to the experiential nature of its shop. The soon-to-be-updated Vancouver location—part of a $300-million cross-country renovation plan—aims to “develop the intimacy of a boutique,” explains Derbyshire. “Retail should be fun, it should be about the thrill. There’s something of the journey of acquiring. Whether it starts with the valet or a spot to have your stuff monogrammed, today’s customer wants an experience.” (He spends ample time each month hosting customers for meals or jetting off with them to markets and fashion shows, just to pick their brains. “A huge part of my job is just listening.”)

Nordstrom is ready to offer Vancouverites something special, too, boasting a roster of decidedly un-cookie-cutter features in the new shop—think themed pop-ups curated by the director of creative projects, a concierge desk for making dinner reservations, and an in-store cocktail and wine bar. The store stocks plenty of Nordstrom exclusives, like Christian Louboutin’s accessories collection, alongside goodies from Vancouver designers (jewellers Poppy Finch and Melanie Auld; menswear line Wings + Horns).

It’s luxury, it’s local, it’s everything we love. After all, this is a city for which the special is truly special. We’ll spend all weekend picking up gourmet sausage from the nose-to-tail butcher, cute bags from entrepreneur designers, and artisanal beer priced like rare scotch. It’s no surprise high-end brands here are trying to get in on the action of big-box stores with a boutique vibe.

The faux-cobblestoned McArthur Glen also sells itself as something more than a place to snag a sweet deal on a Lolë sweater. There’s the “European food hall” and a live-music series planned for the main square. “It should feel like a little village, somewhere to just come and look around and enjoy the experience,” says general manager Robert Thurlow, touring the site. “And if they shop? All the better.”

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