A new look in the North

Canada's North is a storied place of legends and losers. Until almost the other day it was utterly different from the south.Then came regularly scheduled flights to dots on maps, telecommunications highways and satellite tv - and the death knell of...

Canada’s North is a storied place of legends and losers. Until almost the other day it was utterly different from the south.

Then came regularly scheduled flights to dots on maps, telecommunications highways and satellite tv – and the death knell of the cluttered general store that had new snowmobile parts hard alongside shoes or fishing lures.

Nowhere is this change in merchandising more apparent than at Northern Stores, the dominant retailing presence in small northern communities with 153 outlets from b.c. to Labrador to the High Arctic, and 20 in Alaska operating as The Alaska Commercial Company.

Over the next three years, 42 Northern stores will be built or remodelled at a cost of $40 million by the owner, Winnipeg-based The North West Company, using its Tomorrow Store concept.

The Tomorrow Store program seeks to maximize operating productivity and sales through cost-effective construction and appropriate fixturing to present merchandising assortments; provide for the introduction of new products or services categories consistent with the company’s plans; provide customers with a shopping environment superior to the competition; and accommodate through multi-size store formats, markets from 500 to 4,000 people.

The Tomorrow Store comes in three sizes, 6,000, 10,000 or 18,000 square feet, with 75% of their floor space dedicated to selling – a 20% increase over configurations in stores not yet remodelled.

Bill Douglas, vice-president of marketing at The North West Company, says over the years the company’s outlets had evolved into something resembling variety stores and change was required.

Douglas says different trends in food retailing, for instance, with Northern customers demanding more meat and more produce, prompted it.

The company’s stores, because in some places they are the only game in town, have to sell everything anyone in Tuktoyaktuk, n.w.t. could reasonably want.

Ralph Trott, president and chief executive officer of The North West Company, says 60% of the company’s $500 million annual sales comes from food and the rest comes from everything from ‘snowmobiles to pantyhose.’

Television

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Shikitani-Lacroix Design in Toronto, which did the redesign for Northern Stores, says tv has exposed consumers in the north to a better quality of life.

As a result, Lacroix says consumers demand better from their stores, which, in turn, makes the buying experience even more important for Northern.

The task of remodelling appeared easier said than done.

Douglas points out that the cost of building in Canada’s North is astronomical, and hydro costs in the High Arctic – where power comes largely from diesel-powered generators – are 800% higher than down south.

Lacroix agrees on the cost of doing business in Northern’s markets.

He says what costs $150 a square foot to build in Toronto costs $300 to $400 in the North.

In addition, says Douglas, the Tomorrow Store design had to make better use of store space, carry less storeroom stock – hence more stock on the retail floor – and manage such technical considerations as special refrigeration.

North West Company focus groups in Pangnirtung, n.w.t., Moosonee, Ont. and Nelson House, Man. tested three images for the Tomorrow Stores: neo-traditional with warm colors and natural materials; contemporary with its youthful image and vibrant colors; and the basic or warehouse style.

The neo-traditional concept was preferred by more than 75% of focus group members.

According to North West Company research, Northern Stores’ customers identified strongly with the color green, which is used in Tomorrow Stores exterior siding, and inside the store.

External facades

Wood is used in external facades, and the stores’ beaver logo, used outside, has been simplified.

(The beaver logo is entirely appropriate for The North West Company, despite the High Arctic being beyond the animal’s natural range.

(In 1987, Hudson’s Bay sold its Northern Stores division to a group of managers and other investors who changed the name back to The North West Company, which had not been used since the company merged with the Hudson Bay Company in 1821.

(The Hudson Bay Company’s fortunes were built on beaver pelts.)

The use of wood and the color green were even the preferences of customers in the Arctic, says company research, because of the contrast between them and the Arctic environment.

Lacroix says there are a couple of reasons why earth tones were used in the new stores, besides the feelings of focus groups.

He says there is a general trend across retailing towards warmer colors, textures and finishes, and they reflect what Northern Stores’ customers – 70% native – are culturally comfortable with.

(Seventy-five per cent of Northern Stores’ store level employees are natives, too, and about one-third of the company’s almost 4,000 employees are native.)

Lacroix says because of the high cost of retailing in Northern Stores markets, every inch of floor space had to be used effectively, yet at the same time there had to be clear differentiation between the various types of merchandise being sold.

Moreover, he continues, the imperatives of construction excluded the use of certain materials – all floors had to be ceramic tiles, for example, although Lacroix says he was able to use tiles of different colors to set off one area of merchandise from another.

In Northern Stores’ markets, Lacroix points out, English is only one language among many, not to mention the associated dialects of each.

There are, he says, 60 Inuktitut dialects spoken by the Inuit, so naturally the use of signage using text was severely compromised.

He says what his firm did was turn to icons in the Tomorrow Stores’ design. These icons – which borrow from pre-literate societies – use signs instead of words to announce a merchandise area.

In the hardware department, for example, the head of a hammer is displayed with the word hardware next to it spelt out in upper case/ lower case letters for ease of recognition.

The theme of the icon panel is carried onto the end aisle markers in the Tomorrow Stores.

In all, Lacroix says, he used 40 different icons to designate various departments and categories of goods, adding research shows customers much prefer graphic shapes to words.

As for lighting, Lacroix says cost dictated to a certain extent what could be done.

Fluorescent tubes were used, as was accent lighting, adding what Northern Stores customers wanted was good lighting so they could see the merchandise.

Lacroix says given the space demands of the Tomorrow Stores, their walls were given over to displays of merchandise. But with the demands of the North in mind the walls have a durable finish to minimize damage.

The first merchandise area a shopper encounters in a Tomorrow Store is fashion, says the company.

The fashion fixture design uses a simple but flexible outrigger wall pole and bracket system. Because no back panels or slatwall is required, the company can maintain a full image during periods of low stock and by using vertical display carry a greater quantity of stock.

Ceilings in Tomorrow Stores were also dropped, partly to reduce construction costs but also to add to the image of value.

And in a retail quirk destined to become a bit of northern lore, customers got wider aisles in the stores because with the narrower, southern influenced aisles, two people in parkas cannot pass each other.