Reitmans’ revolution

There was a time when Reitmans wasn't

There was a time when Reitmans wasn’t

considered the most fashionable of stores. ‘They used to say that our clothes are from womb to tomb,’ laughs Stephanie Bleau, Reitmans’ director of marketing. But since the launch of the women’s retail chain’s first-ever ad campaign in August, things have changed.

Staff at its home office in Montreal – from IT to accounting – still rave about the irreverent ‘Designed for real life’ print and TV advertising. Customers are giddy, too, sending fan

letter-esque e-mails and leaving voicemails by the dozens. Oh, then there’s the little thing of profits – up a record-breaking 40% in the second quarter in an otherwise tepid retail market.

Bleau, 37, in her third year as marketing director for the 343-store chain, is slightly nonchalant about the whole thing. It doesn’t seem to stem from overconfidence, however, more the knowledge that her push to

introduce an agency – and with it branding and mass advertising – to the 78-year-old

family-owned company has worked.

So what made her so sure of herself? To start, it’s in the genes. Bleau’s father formed LXB, an ad agency in Quebec. ‘Growing up we used to criticize every ad,’ says Bleau.

The other reason? She knows the category. After receiving an arts degree from Concordia University and an MBA from the Université de Montréal, she was hired by In Wear, maker of a high-end line of women’s clothing based in Denmark. She spent nine years there,

moving between sales and marketing positions and eventually working her way to the top spot as GM of the company’s Canadian

subsidiary in 2000. When In Wear was bought by IC Companys, Bleau says the timing was right for a new challenge and accepted the post at Reitmans.

‘This was a company that as recently as a few years ago spent nothing on marketing,’ says Daniel Rabinowicz, president of Taxi Montreal, the shop responsible for the new campaign. ‘Stephanie was the one who talked their management into the notion of working with an advertising agency.’ A move that was more of a risk, says Bleau, given that the status quo (sans agency and splashy ad campaigns) had nonetheless equaled consistent profits for Reitmans; but she believed there was an untapped opportunity. ‘I knew TV was the way to go, given the demographic. I knew that that would take us to the next level.’

Her first step was for the company to define itself. While customers were happy with the quality of clothing, service and prices, focus groups confirmed the chain’s bland, boring image. And given increased competition in women’s retail, especially direct competition from companies such as Sears and Winners, a revamp was crucial. ‘A lot of people never thought about Reitmans, or our shoppers

didn’t necessarily feel proud about it. They weren’t ashamed; they were just sort of

neutral,’ she says.

Step two was narrowing the company’s target from ‘every woman’ to the 25-45 multi-tasker, likely with kids, who doesn’t spend a lot of money on clothes but wants functional, stylish items. Essentially, she doesn’t want to be a trendsetter but wants to be in fashion.

Next was introducing an agency to a company quite comfortable using its 32-person in-house advertising shop. ‘I would say that there was some resistance,’ Bleau admits. ‘But I knew that they needed to see what an agency could do in a tangible way.’ To ease the change, Taxi was first brought in for an out-of-home project in January 2003.

Then, (to use one of Bleau’s favourite catch phases) Reitmans decided to ‘kick it up a notch.’ In August, the new ‘Design for real life’ tagline, massive out-of-home and one very funny TV commercial launched. The TV spot features everyday women having

high-fashion moments: One scenario shows a woman working in an office, decked out in Reitmans-wear, strutting like a model down the hallway with toilet paper stuck to her shoe. It’s that tactic – the quirky juxtaposition between real life and high fashion – that has helped revive the brand and the company’s image. And one Reitmans will tap into again with its upcoming fall/Christmas campaign.

Incidentally, the other divisions in the Reitman Group of Companies, which include Smart Set, Dalmys, RW &Co., Penningtons, Addition-Elle and Thyme Maternity, are now clamouring to learn more about working with advertising agencies.

Bleau says she now plans a PR push as well as improvements to in-store signage and posters. ‘[Reitmans] is not pretentious. It’s not pretending to be Armani. I love that fact that what you see is what you get.’