By Mario Toneguzzi
Montreal-based lingerie retailer La Vie En Rose can be considered a bit of an outlier in the industry.
While news headlines in recent years have focused on the so-called retail apocalypse with many brands shuttering stores, La Vie En Rose has done the opposite. The company continues to expand across Canada with new brick and mortar locations and improving existing locations through redevelopment or relocation.
“In the last four years, I think we did around 40 stores per year. A new store, or a new location in a mall,” said Francois Roberge, president of La Vie En Rose. “We started five years ago. We were very aggressive to change all the stores to make sure they’re the same image and the same proposition for the stock.
“If you look at this year, it’s going to be 27 La Vie En Rose and 21 Bikini Village. We just bought Bikini Village four years ago. We now have a mandate to change and renovate all the stores. This is the goal for 2019. Last year I think it was 42 stores - 30 La Vie En Rose and 12 Bikini Village storefronts.”
Roberge has owned the company since 1995 when he bought the asset. The first store opened in 1986 in CF Sherway Gardens in Toronto.
“I’m the third owner. When I took over at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, I took 23 stores of La Vie En Rose in five provinces and since that we decided to open the machine and develop a national chain with La Vie,” said Roberge.
Today, the company has 190 La Vie En Rose stores and it also has 62 Bikini Village stores in Canada.
“When you have 190 stores (of La Vie En Rose) it’s tough to open new markets,” said Roberge. “The market is good now to pick up better locations, the right size and also sometimes better price for the rent.
“The success in retail today is many factors. The execution in terms of your product, customer service, the concept, the omnichannel, everything is together to make sure your customer likes the experience. It’s very important. We have strong categories. We have the bras and panties. We have the sleepwear and the last category is the bathing suit.
“When you go into the store you can feel the three categories moving in the store. It means the bras are always in the front. The bathing suit in the summer is just next to the bras in the front. And in the winter time the bathing suits are in the back with the sleepwear. They move. We make sure that we always have the three categories at the right spot in the store to maximize the potential for the sale.”
La Vie En Rose stores feature ‘boudoir-like’ design with a mixture of glass, black and white, including wood-like vinyl plank flooring that brings warmth to the space. Montreal-based Prisma Construction partnered with the retailer and has been building-out La Vie En Rose’s stores exclusively since 2007. Prisma Construction has “brought the concept to life” including handling sales strategy, design and store construction.
La Vie En Rose began rolling out its newest and current store concept in 2015, which included unique elements such as lacquered wall panels and dressing rooms with backlit mirrors. For that part, sister company ICM Millwork creates fixtures for all La Vie En Rose stores in Canada with such unique elements as cash counters surrounded by quartz stone, among others.
Roberge said the company works with nine collections so every six weeks a new collection comes to the store. A good rotation of stock within the store ensures the customer is seeing fresh product.
“Customer service is very important. We didn’t cut the hours in the store. I know a lot of retailers because of the salary change, minimum salary, pressure on the margin, decided to cut the service,” said Roberge. “But for us one of the values that’s very important is strong customer service especially in the bathing suit and the bra because you know we need to fit and we need to do a positive approach to them. Customer service is very, very important.”
When asked why the company has embarked on such aggressive expansion plans, Roberge quipped:“Sometimes I’m scared because I look at all those closings. In the States, there’s a lot of challenges. For me, I started in retail in 1981. I’m a typical brick and mortar guy. I love stores. What is important is we need to have a strong web presence. We do good business on the web but not crazy like everybody. A lot of customers pre-shop before on the web to come. The web today is your marketing tool. So a strong web presence gives a chance to increase the sales in the store.”
“We just opened in Brandon, Manitoba. What is good is when you open in a small town the web is going up and we see it both good for the store and the web. My goal now is to look at small markets to maybe maximize the potential of the web. We want to be the destination for that small market for bras, bathing suits and sleepwear.”
In this year, he said the company will be opening 20 new stores with La Vie En Rose and Bikini Village - 10 of each.
“I’m almost done. I always thought the maximum I could do in Canada with La Vie was 200 stores. I’m at 190. I’m very careful with cannibalization. That’s why I’m looking for small markets. For Bikini we believe that 75 stores should be the max we should go. We need to look at other markets for the growth,” said Roberge.
“I’m still controlling my real estate personally. I’m visiting every mall to make sure the destination is what we want. The real estate is my responsibility with the operation. And I’m lucky. My wife is taking care of the buying department. I’m working with Oberfeld Snowcap with my real estate in Canada for 30 years, since I bought La Vie.”
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary has 37 years of experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, city and breaking news, and business. For 12 years as a business writer, his main beats were commercial and residential real estate, retail, small business and general economic news. He nows works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.