Unprecedented Footwear Retail Competition in Canada [Feature]

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By Craig Patterson

There’s never been more footwear available at retailers in Canada, be it a pair of flip-flops that cost a couple of dollars, or a jewel-encrusted stiletto priced into the thousands. While the expansive selection of footwear brands and retailers may be good news for consumers, it could also signal a saturation point that has some analysts waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

In the United States, some shoe retailers are already struggling and in some instances, closing stores. Recent filings include retailers such as Payless, Nine West and Rockport, and their Canadian operations are also being affected to various degrees as a result. 

In Canada, new retailers are entering the market like never before, while existing retailers are expanding their footwear offerings. Department stores and various multi-brand shoe retailers are expanding their offerings and at the same time, some mono brands are also opening their own stores in Canada, not to mention e-commerce sites that further add to the already fierce competition in some segments. 

And while sales numbers for shoes in Canada continue to rise, they’re not growing at the same rate as supply. Euromonitor estimates that shoe retail in Canada will grow by 14.2% between 2017 and 2022, from about $7.84 billion to $8.955 billion. 

The following is an overview of some different categories of shoe retail in Canada and while it’s expansive, it’s not necessarily exhaustive. 

 Photo: Craig Patterson 

Photo: Craig Patterson 

Value-Priced Shoes

Canada has an expansive roster of retailers selling footwear that are either discounted, or inexpensive to begin with. The most recent entrant into the off-price footwear market is Nordstrom Rack — while the retailer carries an assortment of fashions and even home goods, the Seattle-based retailer is known for its shoes and already, the retailer has opened three Canadian stores in the spring of 2018, with three more planned for the fall. Nordstrom Rack’s shoe offerings for both men and women include a mix of modest-to-luxury designer offerings, which could also see it competing with full-priced stores that may carry the same brands. At Nordstrom Rack’s Canadian flagship at the popular corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto, Nordstrom Rack’s discounts can go as deep as 90% off, which means a regularly priced $2,000 boot may be priced at only $200 (though savings typically range between 30% and 70% off regular prices, according to the company). 

 Photo: DSW

Photo: DSW

Nordstrom Rack joins several other US-based off-price retailers that have recently set up shop in Canada. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s off-price division Saks OFF 5TH entered Canada in the spring of 2016 and it already operates 17 stores, with plans to operate about 25 stores by the end of this year (or maybe a bit longer, as it’s said to be underperforming). TJX Companies' nameplates Marshalls and Winners, which are both still expanding rapidly in Canada, also feature discounted shoe offerings that are proving to be popular with Canadians. Their recent expansions have been made possible partly by the real estate made available following the closing of Sears Canada and Target

One of the biggest shoe retailers in Canada now is DSW Shoes out of the United States, which entered the Canadian market in the summer of 2014 and now has stores across the country. DSW is a multi-brand retailer that also owns Canada’s 188-store Town Shoes chain that also includes Shoe Warehouse and The Shoe Company — DSW acquired 100% of Town Shoes last month, after acquiring about 50% of its shares when it initially entered Canada. DSW also recently launched a new multi-brand sneaker concept called GRAIL, which is expected to see a rollout in Canada as well as in the US. 

Mono-brand Footwear Stores

 Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Photo: ECCO

Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Photo: ECCO

Canada’s biggest mono-brand shoe retailer is Montreal-based Aldo, which boasts more than 3,000 stores globally. Aldo continues to open stores as it offers reasonably priced footwear from its own label, as well as with its Call it Spring and Globo Shoes nameplates. Other mono-brand retailers from around the globe continue to expand their fleet of stores in Canada — last year Danish footwear brand ECCO opened a unique flagship at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre, and it continues to open multiple stores annually. GEOX is expanding its fleet of stores in Canada, as is Steve Madden, which may also open multiple locations for its ‘SHOO’ concept store that it opened at CF Toronto Eaton Centre in 2015. Casual brands such as Skechers and Vans are proving popular with Canadians, and US-based Nike is in the midst of a significant expansion in Canada that is seeing it opening stores in many of the country’s leading malls. 

Other brands known for their shoes and operating stores in Canada, include (and are not limited to) the likes of Adidas, ASICS, Clarks, Cole Haan, Crocs, Florsheim, New Balance, and UGG, with brands such as Pajar looking to also open their own stores in this country. 

Montreal-based L’Intervalle is expanding its base of stores beyond Quebec for the first time, and sources say that the ladies brand will soon add men’s footwear to the mix. The elegant Stuart Weitzman brand has several locations in Canada and other brands such as Johnston & Murphy operate stores in Canada, while also managing expansive wholesale accounts in multi-brand retailers. 

 Jimmy Choo's new Vancouver store. Photo: CBRE

Jimmy Choo's new Vancouver store. Photo: CBRE

At the luxury end of the spectrum, brands like Jimmy Choo are expanding in Canada by opening stores — late last month the UK-based luxury brand opened its first standalone store in Vancouver, and towards the end of this year Jimmy Choo will open its second Toronto store in the city’s upscale Yorkville area (a Yorkdale store opened in 2014). Salvatore Ferragamo now operates stores in Vancouver and Toronto, as well as a couple of outlet stores (speaking to off-price) and Christian Louboutin also boasts distribution with concession boutiques in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as an impressive standalone flagship on Toronto’s Yorkville Avenue, directly across from Chanel (which also has shoes that are sometimes priced well into the thousands). 

Various fashion brands are also expanding their shoe offerings to cater to their fans — examples include Saint Laurent, Versace, Kate Spade, Moncler, Louis Vuitton and many others, all of which are competing with shoe stores and department stores for limited Canadian shopping dollars. 

 Photo: Browns Shoes

Photo: Browns Shoes

Upscale Multi-brand Shoe Retailers

Toronto-based Town Shoes, which we mentioned was recently completely acquired by US-based DSW, has expanded its offering of contemporary-priced footwear brands to include the likes of Jil Sander Navy and See by Chloé. This is a significant move, as it further moves Town Shoes into the same competitive space as Browns Shoes, Jean-Paul Fortin and David’s Footwear, all of which are in the midst of their own expansions. 

Montreal-based Browns Shoes, which continues to open several stores each year under its Browns, B2 and Browns Outlet nameplates, carries a range of brands that include private-label offerings as well as designer shoes at various price points. Browns remains a profitable business and as such, is also upgrading some of its existing locations to better serve its loyal clientele. Price points range from ‘just above Aldo’ to luxury, including some significant brands such as Maison Margela, Rick Owens and Manolo Blahnik

Quebec City-based Jean-Paul Fortin shoes opened its first store outside of Quebec last year at Toronto’s Yorkville Village, with plans to roll out the new concept to markets nationally, such as Vancouver. 

 Signage at the former Capezio store on Toronto's Bloor St. West. The space will be merged into the adjacent David's store. Photo: Craig Patterson 

Signage at the former Capezio store on Toronto's Bloor St. West. The space will be merged into the adjacent David's store. Photo: Craig Patterson 

Toronto-based David’s Footwear, which currently operates four stores just in Toronto, has plans to expand to a chain of approximately 20 store locations coast-to-coast. That’s according to Larry Rosen, CEO of upscale menswear retailer Harry Rosen — Larry Rosen was appointed CEO of David’s several months ago as part of a joint venture with the Markowitz family which founded David’s in 1971. David’s, which is known to stock a roster of luxury labels that include the likes of Valentino and Christian Louboutin for women, is a window on the womenswear market that Larry Rosen said that he was lacking with his menswear business. David’s also carries luxury footwear for men from several leading brands, and the retailer will be expanding into Ottawa this fall with a store at CF Rideau Centre, marking the beginning of an expansion that could target cities such as Vancouver, Calgary and possibly Montreal. At the same time, the company’s Capezio and Duet retail operations have ceased as part of the overall David’s repositioning. 

 Gravity pope store in Calgary. Photo: Gravity Pope

Gravity pope store in Calgary. Photo: Gravity Pope

At the trendy-luxury end of the spectrum is Edmonton-based gravity-pope, spelled lower-case, which is known for its expansive shoe offerings for men and women, as well as fashions from some of the world’s leading designers. Business is booming and owner Louise Dirks revealed that the retailer’s e-commerce business is also very strong. 

Across the country, there are various other multi-brand footwear retailers —  Famous Footwear, SoftMoc, and Little Burgundy are national examples, and there are also plenty of regional examples such as Walk with Ronsons in British Columbia and Shumaker in Ontario. Ron White Shoes, a multi-brand shoe retail concept out of Toronto, currently operates several standalone multi-brand locations, though its focus is on its super-comfortable private label offerings which are also wholesaled in selected upscale retailers. 

 Impressive footwear hall at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver. Photo: Holt Renfrew

Impressive footwear hall at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver. Photo: Holt Renfrew

Department Stores/Large Format Retailers

Many of Canada’s large-format retailers, be they department stores or otherwise, are expanding their shoe offerings to add further competition to an already crowded market. 

One large-format retailer, Quebec City-based La Maison Simons, recently introduced separate men’s and women’s shoe departments into several of its large-format fashion stores. Simons continues to innovate and this week, the company will announce another new store location in suburban Montreal. 

Homegrown luxury retailer Holt Renfrew offers a premium offering of some of the world’s top footwear brands, and it continues to expand its shoe offerings for both men and women. In 2012, Holt Renfrew unveiled a 10,000 square foot shoe hall at its Yorkdale Shopping Centre store in Toronto, which included several shop-in-stores as well as a roster of the world’s top labels. The concept has been rolled out to other stores in the chain — the Vancouver flagship at CF Pacific Centre features an impressive women’s shoe space with an attached Ladureé cafe, and the Toronto shoe hall has been temporarily relocated to the concourse level while a new women’s shoe floor is renovated. As well, big things are planned for the combined Holt Renfrew Ogilvy in Montreal which will be finished hopefully before the end of the decade. 

 WOMEN'S 10022-SHOE SALON ON 2, at Saks in Toronto. Image VIA SAKS

WOMEN'S 10022-SHOE SALON ON 2, at Saks in Toronto. Image VIA SAKS

Saks Fifth Avenue, which entered Canada with two stores in Toronto in the spring of 2016, offers an expansive offering of shoes for both men and women. In the downtown Toronto Saks flagship, Shoes are the radial centrepiece of the second-floor men’s store, and a nearby 8,500 square foot women’s shoe floor stocks some of the leading brands in the world. Saks recently opened in Calgary and is expected to eventually announce stores for Vancouver and Montreal. 

Hudson’s Bay has also been expanding its shoe offerings for men and women — under the direction of Bonnie Brooks several years ago, the storied retailer unveiled Canada’s largest shoe floor at the Hudson’s Bay flagship on Queen Street. The 35,000 square foot department was relocated as part of the insertion of Saks Fifth Avenue into the building, though it remains the largest shoe offering in Canada to date. Other Bay stores have seen their shoe offerings for both men and women expanded, and at a wide range of price points — while some styles may cost less than $30 at Hudson’s Bay, it’s women’s ‘The Room’ offerings include some styles priced in excess of $2,000 a pair from the likes of Balmain and Giuseppe Zanotti

 At Harry Rosen in Ottawa. PHoto: Harry Rosen

At Harry Rosen in Ottawa. PHoto: Harry Rosen

Harry Rosen, which some say is the world’s leading chain of multi-brand upscale men’s stores, has significantly expanded its offering of men’s shoes over the past several years. Most stores now include expansive shoe departments that carry some of the same leading brands carried on its fashion floor. It will be interesting to see if the David’s partnership will have any effect on Harry Rosen’s offerings — if anything, one might expect synergies that could lead to the inclusion of new brands at both nameplates. 

Sporting Life, which is something of a hybrid sports store and upscale fashion retailer, also continues to expand its footwear offerings as it expands its base of stores across the country. Based in Toronto, Sporting Life has stores in Ontario and Alberta and, soon, will enter the Quebec and British Columbia markets with its beautiful stores that typically surpass 40,000 square feet each. 

 Nordstrom at CF Pacific Centre in Vancouver -- the store sells over $200-million annually, including a ton of shoes. 

Nordstrom at CF Pacific Centre in Vancouver -- the store sells over $200-million annually, including a ton of shoes. 

And what conversation about shoes could be had without Nordstrom — the Seattle-based retailer now operates six full-line stores in Canada (excluding ‘The Rack’) and each of these includes thousands of pairs of shoes for both men and women. Nordstrom’s shoe offerings are expansive both in its availability of sizing, as well as price points — stores carry private label brands, affordable offerings, and also some leading luxury brands such as Gucci and Prada in its bigger markets. 

The World of 'Sneakerheads' 

Youth culture of today is embracing limited-edition sneaker ‘drops’, which generally involves releasing a style in limited quantities for a limited period of time. Some of these include celebrity endorsements and partnerships, which has led to long lineups and even criminal activity in order to acquire a pair. The limited edition sneaker model is rather interesting — it speaks to the power of perceived scarcity for a product, and also exemplified something of a herd mentality that can be seen amongst many youth seeking the latest styles. And while popular brands aren’t necessarily a new thing for Canada’s youth — the way that product is being released is an interesting study in the potential success of pop-up retail, not to mention having the ‘latest thing’ that can be shared via social media, such as Instagram. As celebrities and streetwear brands continue to partner with luxury and other brands, it will be interesting to see where the trends go here — one major mall landlord is even considering creating an area in one of its leading centres for such streetwear brands, recognizing the success of Off-White in Canada as well as multi-brand retailers such as CNTRBND in Toronto, SSENSE in Montreal, and Feuille in Vancouver. 

 Justin Timberlake at the release of his limited edition  2-Minute Warning  sneakers at Toronto's Jordan store at 306 Yonge Street in the spring of 2018. 

Justin Timberlake at the release of his limited edition 2-Minute Warning sneakers at Toronto's Jordan store at 306 Yonge Street in the spring of 2018. 

Final Thoughts

What’s incredible is despite the lengthy essay above, there are still other categories and retailers that we haven’t mentioned (more due to time constraints). What’s clear is that competition for footwear retail in Canada is unprecedented, and that its current growth is likely unsustainable. As retailers such as Nine West close their stores and exit Canada, footwear will be a category to watch over the next five years as even more international brands make their moves and enter the already crowded Canadian market. 

Craig Patterson, now based in Toronto, is the founder and Editor-in-Chief Retail Insider. He's also a retail and real estate consultant, retail tour guide and public speaker. 

Follow him on Twitter @RetailInsider_, LinkedIn at Craig Patterson, or email him at: craig@retail-insider.com.

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