Haute Holts

Don't let its good looks fool you.

Don’t let its good looks fool you.

Behind its fashionable exterior, luxury retailer Holt Renfrew’s recent clever marketing and business strategies have reinvigorated a brand that, truth be told, wasn’t in need of rebranding, affected by sagging sales or suffering an identity crisis.

In fact, the Holts brand remains in a league of its own: the lone retailer catering to the well-travelled, informed, ageless, fashion-savvy Canadian consumer in need of all things luxury, available in a convenient department store setting.

The chain, which has nine locations across the country, has few direct local competitors in the booming luxury industry. Instead, its main rivals are global: other luxury retailers in London and New York like Neiman Marcus and Harrods, where its customer occasionally jet-sets, as well as the free-standing stores of the luxe brands it carries.

Holts excelled under the stewardship of Andrew Jennings, who was president from 1999 to 2004. But under president Caryn Lerner, who joined in the fall of that year following a stint as president and CMO of luxury brand Escada in the U.S., the brand has taken on new lustre.

‘It is alone in that end of the market,’ says Wendy Evans, a retail analyst at Toronto-based Evans and Associates. ‘But Holts has taken advantage of the position and run with it.’

‘I inherited a solid business that was fiscally sound,’ admits Lerner, adding that it was neither broken nor in a turn-around situation when she joined. Essentially tasked with making a good thing better, she’s doing it. Sales rose from about $400 million in 2004 to roughly $500 million in 2006, according to Canadian Business. As Holts is a private company, owned by businessman Galen Weston since 1986, Lerner will only confirm that 2006 was ‘a record year of growth’ for the retailer.

Under her tenure, a children’s line was launched in February ’06. She was also behind the brand regaining control of its shoe business earlier this year from Browns, which had leased sections of Holts stores for 17 years. The company had been ‘blind to the [shoe] business,’ she says, with little knowledge of its operations. Re-owning it would mean the company could better control its merchandise, image and messaging. The changeover, which occurred in January, has already paid off. In six months, sales were up 50% compared to last year, she says.

Another recent coup was wooing Tracy Fellows – the consumer advertising and marketing VP behind Canadian Tire’s lauded advertising campaign and repositioning – to the VP marketing position roughly six months ago.

‘We went after her,’ Lerner says, adding that Fellows has already made ‘significant contributions’ to the brand.

For one thing, Fellows has brought in a new agency. On Oct. 1, Taxi, with which she worked at Canadian Tire, became Holt Renfrew’s AOR, replacing Zig, which had been with the brand about three years, six strategically. ‘Everything’s on the table for re-examination,’ says Lerner. Taxi’s first campaign is scheduled for spring ’08.

Fellows has also added another plank to the company’s marketing plan. The strategy, integration and advertising team will ensure that all elements of marketing (CRM, visual, events and PR) come together to create cohesive communications that effectively reach all consumer touchpoints.

One example, says Fellows, is the retailer’s Christmas campaign, Holts

for the Holidays, which launched Nov. 5. Over seven weeks, a Must Have list of five products will be featured and flow through the consumer touchpoints. From window displays to online to in-store merchandise, the campaign will be both cohesive and integrated – something that was missing from the retailer’s previous campaigns over the years, she says.

Another focus, Fellows says, will be Holt Renfrew’s consumer database. Its current CRM program has been built using POS tracking and one-on-one

meetings with customers. While tightlipped about the details, Fellows

will say that it’s set to be enhanced.

‘Around the same time that our spring campaign launches, we’ll have a program in place that will help us with the analytics of customers’ data to better target them and provide them with different types of programs to drive them back into the store,’ she says.

Creating an in-store experience has been and will continue to be a key strategy, says Lerner. Each year, Holts stores across the country hold more than 300 events in an attempt to make the store not just a place to shop, but a destination. For example, the debut of fashion lines by buzz-worthy designers are leveraged into full-fledged events – like the launch of the Twenty8Twelve line, designed by actress Sienna Miller and her sister, which tied into the Toronto International Film Festival. Aside from the impressive PR value, the result was about $30,000 in upfront sales, says Lerner.

The bricks and mortar of the stores themselves are also being enhanced. In May, Holt Renfrew’s new Vancouver location opened to much media coverage. In September, Holts announced that its Calgary store will relocate to the city’s Eaton Centre. The space is 140,000 sq. ft. – about 60,000 sq. ft. bigger than the previous location.

In addition to enhancing the store environments inside and out, Lerner’s also determined to build on its customer service and improve its merchandise offering. ‘We’ve got it before they think of it,’ she says, of the approach to introducing new product.

Good-looking and smart, too.