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Simons to add more Toronto stores, but CEO says it’s still playing the ‘long’ game |



Simons has been around for longer than most Canadian retailers, but when it comes to expanding, the Quebec company has never been in a rush.

In its 184-year history, the dry-goods-shop-turned-department-store-chain has amassed just 17 stores, preferring to edge into new markets rather than blanket regions in one swift blow.

“It’s a long play for us,” said CEO Bernard Leblanc during a recent trip to Toronto.

“We have been and will continue to be patient (because) the intent is not to be the biggest. It’s really to be the best at what we do.”

That strategy will be on full display next year when the company adds locations to the Yorkdale and Eaton Centre malls in Toronto.

The $75-million expansion, announced Thursday, is expected to boost Simons’ store count to 19 locations and increase the company’s annual sales of more than $650 million by 15 per cent. Some 400 workers will be hired in time for the new locations to open by winter 2025.

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Simons’ growth comes as the company and Canada’s retail sector are at an interesting juncture.

While the pandemic was not a death knell for as many businesses as some industry observers expected when lockdowns began, retailers including Ted Baker, Mastermind, the Body Shop and Bed Bath & Beyond, have either filed for bankruptcy, closed stores or left the country in the last few years.

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Even those that survived the health and economic crisis have not had an easy ride. High inflation and interest rates have put a damper on consumer spending and caused many to see sluggish sales, even during the key holiday period.

Simons has weathered the economic swings, in part because 70 per cent of the products it stocks can only be found at its stores, but it’s simultaneously been navigating a major leadership change.

When Peter Simons stepped down from the chain’s top job in March 2022, Leblanc became the first outsider to run the business in five generations.

Roughly a year into his tenure, U.S. rival Nordstrom announced it was leaving Canada because it did not “see a realistic path to profitability” in the country.

The withdrawal opened up 13 prime properties, including the two-floor Yorkdale site and three-level Eaton Centre space Simons will move into. (Cadillac Fairview announced Thursday that Simons will be joined at the former Nordstrom space in Eaton Centre by Nike and food emporium Eataly.)

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Leblanc, who spent roughly 15 years at Simons and just as many at snowmobile-maker BRP Inc., had his eye on the Toronto sites even before Nordstrom retreated.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “We had to wait for the right location, the right moment, at the right conditions.”

While he waited, Simons brought stores to Halifax and the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire as part of a $300-million spending plan.

But then the Nordstrom spaces opened up.

“It was decades in the making, really,” Leblanc said.

“We have always had our sights on Toronto because of its dynamic vibrancy, because of the fact that it’s a worldly cosmopolitan city and because it’s a major market for Canada.”

Simons had already experimented in the market with a store at Square One, a mall in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, but the two new locations place it in even more high-profile shopping centres, often doors down from another rival: Hudson’s Bay.

Yet Leblanc sees the competition as a “positive.”

While he keeps an eye on rivals, he says he doesn’t want them to be a benchmark for Simons.

“I want to just be the very best in the eyes of our clients and if we can achieve that, then I guess it’s a job done.”

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As Simons expands, however, it will have to tackle more than competition. Despite the company’s longevity and e-commerce presence, it still needs to build brand awareness — especially outside Quebec.

Leblanc estimates Simons’ market share outside of its home province is a quarter of what it is in Quebec.

He’s hoping additional stores in high-traffic areas will change that but ask him where he has sights set after Toronto and he plays coy, leaning on the company’s patient modus operandi.

“We’ll see where the future takes us.”

&copy 2024 The Canadian Press

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