The year 2020 was a difficult one for the retail industry, to say the least, particularly for those operating in and around the apparel space. Interruptions to global supply chains, a more cautious consumer and forced store closures due to government-imposed lockdowns across the country are just some of the factors and challenges that retailers have needed to contend with over the course of the past ten months or so. The resulting impacts have been well-spread and widely documented, wreaking havoc on the bottom line for most. For others, the outcomes have been far more serious, leading to the permanent shuttering of their operations. There’s no doubting the severity of the destruction that COVID-19 has caused retailers in Canada and around the world. It’s changed everything that we had come to know and has cast an air of uncertainty, even fear, concerning what’s to come. Despite these challenges, however, leading Canadian menswear retailer Harry Rosen continues to move forward, shaping its own future through clever adaptation and forward-thinking ingenuity.
Part of the Culture
The company’s success, even during difficult times, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s followed the industry and retailer through the years. Since it’s founding 66 years ago, Harry Rosen has weathered many market challenges, evolving with the tastes and preferences of multiple generations of Canadian men and catering to numerous shifts in style. The retailer’s ability to pivot and respond effectively in the face of adversity is perhaps one of its greatest strengths and a central reason that helps explain the tremendous accomplishments it’s enjoyed through the years. According to the company’s CEO, Larry Rosen, it’s resilience and fortitude that began with his father, Harry, who exemplified the characteristics that quickly became part of the Harry Rosen culture, reenforcing the foundations on which the company had been built. And it’s a culture and foundation that he says is strengthened even further today through the invention and creativity of the immensely talented team that he leads.
“We’ve got a number of young executives at the company who are doing some really amazing things,” he says. “They bring a youthful perspective and a strong spirit of innovation to our operations and deserve a great deal of credit for a lot of the more important decisions that we’ve made recently as a business. Their insights and ideas have allowed us to continue to adapt and evolve with trends within the market, helping to drive us forward and increase our relevance within the menswear space.”
The young, innovative executives that he refers to include the retailer’s Chief Marketing Officer, SVP Marketing & E-Commerce, Trinh Tham, his son Ian Rosen who leads the company’s Digital & Strategy, and Shannon Stewart, Vice President, General Merchandise Manager, and Alan Whitfield, Executive Vice President, Store Operations, to name a few. Their efforts, supported by their teams, have collectively aided in the recent transformation of the Harry Rosen digital experience for customers, the optimization of its e-commerce capabilities and performance and the introduction of a new visual identity and positioning for the brand. These decisions and the work put in to execute on them have been critical in preparing Harry Rosen to effectively respond to some of the challenges brought on by the impacts of COVID-19 and to place itself well to continue servicing the evolving needs and behaviour of the consumer.
“The effect that COVID-19 has had on the industry has been very dramatic,” he asserts. “Forced store closures and reduce capacities at malls and within stores across the country have significantly impacted the performance of many businesses. Most apparel retailers, Harry Rosen included, ended the holiday period with inadequate revenue and too much fall inventory. But what this extremely negative circumstance has provided us is an opportunity to take a good look at what we’re doing, how we’re servicing our customer and making our product available, and improving in those areas to continue strengthening our brand and our relationships with our clients.”
The Pandemic’s Lasting Impacts
Although Rosen laments the fact that the experience of the Canadian consumer is currently restricted with respect to their ability to visit stores and to touch and feel product, he recognizes the gains the company has made on the e-commerce side of the business, posting record-braking online sales during the recent COVID months. The migration of sales to the online channel represents one of the most significant changes to consumer behaviour as a result of the global pandemic and resulting lockdowns. But, as Rosen sees it, the e-commerce boom is less of a change in behaviour and more reflective of an acceleration of a trend that the industry’s been experiencing for some time.
“We were fortunate enough to have already established an e-commerce presence before the impacts of COVID took hold,” he says. “We’ve been selling online for more than 12 years. But since the start of the pandemic, we’ve experience extraordinary growth in our online sales which have been supported by the digital enhancements that we made. These enhancements, along with all of the other work that we’ve recently done had been in development for some time. But we decided to ramp up our efforts in some of these areas in order to meet the needs of the evolving consumer. The impacts of COVID have clearly influenced some of these needs, accelerating a move to online that I don’t see reverting once everyone’s been vaccinated. There will be a return to stores and a recovery of the sales that happen within the physical retail environment when all of this comes to an end. But I think that the Canadian consumer, even those who may previously have been reluctant to order product online, have become very comfortable with the experience and service over the past number of months and will continue to do more of their shopping virtually.”
In addition to influencing the channels through which consumers are making their purchases, another way in which the pandemic may pose long-term impact, Rosen suggests, is the attitude of the Canadian workforce with respect to where and how they work. He believes that although there will be a return to offices, most people will be working more of their hours and days remotely going forward. In the short-term, in combination with recent lockdowns and societal restrictions, the impact a lack of corporate traffic has had on the tailored clothing business has been severe. Serving to supplement for a reduction in its sales of tailored clothing and to continue meeting the evolving demands of the Canadian consumer, however, is Harry Rosen’s excellent selection of sportswear and outerwear.
“We’re confident that our tailored business will bounce back when people start holding events again and returning to their offices,” he states. “But the impact that COVID has had on the businesswear market to date has been profound, reducing it significantly. We’re fortunate in that we have a long history of being an outstanding sportswear and outerwear retailer. It’s an area of our business that we’re very proud of and one that we continue to focus on, increasing our selection and expanding our outreach. It helps to position us nicely, allowing us to continue satisfying the apparel needs of our customers both today as well as moving forward.”
Creativity and Adaptation
As already mentioned, these tweaks and subtle shifts in focus within the business have become something of a cornerstone of the Harry Rosen brand through the years, allowing it to continuously adapt with current change while making the right decisions and investments to secure longer-term success. It’s representative of a nimbleness and willingness to innovate. In fact, the creativity within the company, as Rosen rightly points out, seems to be boundless today and is well represented by the partnership that the company recently entered into with DoorDash in order to provide same-day delivery of any of the retailers top 25 highest selling products during the busy 2020 holiday period. It’s an innovation that Rosen lauds as ingenious, providing the retailer with a means by which to remove friction from the holiday gift buying experience for its last-minute shoppers while securing sales that may very well have not happened if the service hadn’t been available.
It’s clear when discussing the retailer’s future plans with Rosen the pride that he possesses for the group of people that he works with and the execution and subsequent achievements that they’re collectively responsible for. What it’s resulted in is a Harry Rosen brand that will likely come out of this very difficult period with an even stronger reputation and proposition for the customer. But, despite all of this excellent work, what he perhaps seems even more satisfied with is the continuation of the company’s involvement in meaningful causes through its most recent collaboration with Toronto Raptors President and Giants of Africa Founder Masai Ujiri.
A Matter of HUMANITY
The project, which launched in December 2020 and is centred around the theme HUMANITY, features a seven-piece athleisure capsule designed by Ujiri and Canadian designer Patrick Assaraf, with each piece adorned with the word ‘HUMANITY’ in Ujiri’s handwriting. Focused on raising funds for charity and introducing new Black designers to the Canadian market, net proceeds from the sale of the collection will go to Black Youth Helpline, an organization which provides young people with access to culturally relevant, high-quality services and resources in their local community, including crisis counselling, strategies for staying in school and support for families, schools and communities. It’s an amazing commitment and contribution by the retailer that, according to Rosen, transcends what the leading menswear retailer does as a business and is part of what he sees as part of a growing collective aimed at eradicating racism and promoting inclusivity within the industry.
“This kind of work and the efforts that are being made by incredible individuals like Masai are nothing short of critical in raising awareness of some of the issues in our societies that continue to plague us. It’s true that it’s been a tremendously difficult year for the industry. But, being involved with Masai to the degree that we’ve committed to allows us to do something that goes well beyond the retail industry. Everyone knows that there are systemic barriers to accessibility and opportunity within our communities. This collaboration simply gives us the chance to do our part, to promote inclusion within the industry that we operate. We all know that more needs to be done to start to correct some of the injustices that occur on a daily basis. We’re hoping that with the help of Masai and Patrick that we’ll be able to do our part, reminding the world that there’s more that unites us than divides us.”