Luxury-goods retailer Holt Renfrew is exiting the Winnipeg market after more than 100 years of outfitting the city's wealthy fashionistas.
At one time, Winnipeg was one of only three cities the high-end clothing and accessories purveyor deemed well-heeled enough to support a store. But it has effectively been downsizing its presence here since 2000, when most of its Portage Place store converted to a discounted hybrid called Holt Renfrew Last Call.
That store closed in 2007, leaving only a personal shopping service and cosmetics counter in Winnipeg.
On Thursday, the Toronto-based specialty luxury retailer, founded in 1837, announced major store closures in Ottawa and Quebec City to concentrate on expansions in the Greater Toronto Area, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
Company president Mark Derbyshire also confirmed the Winnipeg personal shopping and cosmetics counter would be closing at the end of January 2015.
"This was a difficult decision," Derbyshire said in an email about the Winnipeg operation. "Holt Renfrew explored a number of options for the market, however it was ultimately concluded that Holt Renfrew's enhanced specialty luxury business model required a full-store experience with a significantly larger footprint in any target market and a deep assortment across a wide array of its core brand partners."
A company official confirmed 10 employees in Winnipeg will be affected by the closure.
That's not as big a hit as the closures of the Ottawa and Quebec City stores that have 72 and 85 employees respectively. But Holt, which likely has bragging rights to the most expensive dresses, hand-bags and suits of any Canadian retail chain, has been in Winnipeg since 1910 which is longer than in those other two cities.
Although it's closing two stores and the personal shopping service in Winnipeg, the company is framing its actions as a way to "enhance and expand its network of stores in Canada."
The company plans to sink $300 million into store expansions, mostly in Toronto and Montreal, which will result in a 40 per cent increase in square footage, from approximately 800,000 to more than 1.2 million square feet "based on an elevated luxury flagship store model."
The company recently completed a 120,000 square foot expansion to its store at Yorkdale mall in Toronto; it's building a new 120,000 sq. ft. store at the Square One mall in Mississauga, Ont., scheduled to open in the spring of 2016: it has plans to build a 220,000 square-foot store in Montreal to be complete at the end 2017; and a Holt Renfrew Men shop is to open this fall beside its flagship store on Bloor St. West in Toronto. It is also planning on expanding its luxury apartment shopping concept to Vancouver and Calgary.
The Winnipeg personal shopping service was the only one of its kind that the chain, owned by Galen and Hillary Weston, operated.
Derbyshire said, "We thank our loyal customers in Winnipeg. We hope that many of them will continue to shop with us in other stores and through future online channels."
The company said it is developing plans for "a dynamic omni-channel program including e-commerce offerings," but will not have that online system up and running until some time next year.
Craig Patterson, an analyst who runs the online news magazine Retail Insider, said the company is consolidating stores in anticipation of losing market share to U.S. luxury retailers.
The first Nordstrom in Canada is set to open next month in Calgary, while Saks Fifth Avenue, which was acquired by Hudson's Bay Co. last July, will open a new location in Toronto's Eaton Centre.
Patterson says Holt Renfrew's planned expansion is likely a direct response to the impending arrival of Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries similar merchandise.
"Saks really plans to up its game in Canada. When it builds its Canadian... (stores) it says it's going to be more luxurious than their current American locations," Patterson noted.
Despite the increased competition, Patterson says the company has a good chance of survival. The chain has been successful in attracting high-end vendors -- recent examples include Dior and Miu Miu.
"I think that Holt Renfrew has two things going for it. It's got a strong brand awareness among many wealthy Canadians and brand loyalty. And it does have some vendors that (others don't) have and probably wouldn't be able to keep," he said.
-- with files from The Canadian Press