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Warehouse One rolls up its sleeves

Sales soaring, but chain isn't resting

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WAREHOUSE One, the Winnipeg-based jeans store chain, broke sales records for the last three years and the numbers are up again this year.

You would think with that sort of track record, management would be happy to stick with the status quo.

But instead, the 30-year-old, 113-store chain is in the midst of a $2-million national rebranding that it hopes will provide the kind of refreshing environment that will keep customers coming back.

Neil Armstrong, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, said, "The retail climate right now is tough and tight. But our position in the market as somewhat of a value play is reasonably good."

But all of the consultants will tell you that regardless of how good you're doing, the fickle consumer will wander off it you don't pay attention.

"Refreshing the brand is absolutely crucial," said John Torella, branding expert at the Toronto retail consultants, the J.C. Williams Group Ltd. "You have to keep reflecting the changing consumer. If you don't, you become dated, particularly in the jeans business."

The rebranding -- featuring a more modern, simple, clean signage and more consistency in the signage inside and outside the store -- followed about two years of market research that articulated who the chain is and who its customers think it is.

In a market where it's not hard to find designer jeans costing several hundred dollars, it's hard to find a pair at a Warehouse One store that costs more than $50.

"We have updated our basics," said Larry Millar, the company's director of marketing. "For instance, where we used to have mostly boxy T-shirts, there's now some different fits, different materials, but the offering is targeted at real people, with everyday, average body types. We realize not everyone has a model's physique."

So while the new-look stores may not be your parents' Warehouse One, management has taken care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"We may be more fashion conscious, but we're not fashion-forward," Millar said.

While massive global chains like The Gap that once set the fashion trends for a generation are struggling to regain their street credibility, Warehouse One is broadening its offerings -- more size selections and styles -- but continuing to stick to the basics.

"This is another example of Prairie know-how," said Bob Silver, owner of jeans manufacturer Western Glove Works (and co-owner of the Winnipeg Free Press) who was part of the ownership group that bought Warehouse One in 2002 and revived the chain after it had been petitioned into bankruptcy.

"They search the world for the best value for their customers. Management has done a great job. This is a very vibrant company."

About 98 per cent of the jeans Warehouse One sells are its own private brand, and only a tiny fraction come from Western Glove factories.

The chain has eight stores in the Winnipeg area, a similar number in Edmonton and the lower mainland of British Columbia, but its bread and butter is in smaller and medium-sized communities from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island.

"We like that market," Armstrong said. "With our expanded sizes and fashion offering we can provide lots of choices for men and women, whereas other retailers that may be unisex or have too narrow an offering have a harder time competing (in smaller towns)."

Its 114th store will open next month in Swan River and Armstrong said the company intends to continue opening four or five stores a year.

Rob Warren, executive director of the Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, said the changing market demands this kind of updating.

"It doesn't matter where they are located, the consumer knows what's fashionable," he said. "Even with its value offering it has to be seen to be moving up-market."

Winnipeg-based retail chains


With the recent sale of the TruServ Canada chain to Rona, there is one less Winnipeg-based national chain. Here is how they stack up:


North West Company -- 267 stores

Ricki's -- 140 stores*

Warehouse One -- 113 stores

Ben Moss Jewellers -- 58 stores

Princess Auto -- 32 stores


* part of the Comark company based in Mississauga.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2010 B4

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