The Bay’s stylish makeover

With Patrick Dickinson leading the marketing charge, the 130-year-old retailer is putting fashion first

Fashion-forward thinking and a fashion-first attitude have propelled The Bay to where it is now. They are two key elements behind a mantra that’s guided the company’s VP marketing Patrick Dickinson and his team in executing a turnaround strategy that’s been in the works for two years, aiming to revitalize the brand in the minds of Canadians as a go-to fashion destination.
The new thinking has seen the retailer become a more dynamic organization over the past year says Dickinson, who’s been with The Bay for four years and started his marketing career as a media estimator at J. Walter Thompson. Given the speed of the strategic about-face, managing his 45-strong marketing team required a lot of passion-inspiring, consensus-building and, most importantly, responsiveness.
Creative, media, PR and the brand’s digital efforts are all currently handled in-house.    
“There is no challenge that can be thrown at marketing that we’re not able to respond to,” says Dickinson. “There’s an expectation that everyone is able to do seemingly extraordinary things and we do. The team pulls rabbits out of the hat every hour of the day.”
Implemented with the arrival of president and CEO Bonnie Brooks two years ago, the new style-centric strategy has helped The Bay achieve sales growth targets despite reduced budgets and a tumultuous economic environment.

An omnipresent radio campaign featuring the voice of Brooks has touted some of The Bay’s new exclusive brands, with the voices of featured designers and celebrities such as Jessica Simpson, Jamie Oliver and Jeanne Beker (who has her own line at The Bay) recently added.
A new TV spot developed in-house featuring behind-the-scenes images from a photo shoot The Bay did for its Insider’s Look Book also reflects the new haute positioning – and highlights just how much the department store has grown since opening its first location in 1881.
“We’ve made an effort to become a more fashionable destination, present a more edited assortment to customers…and to portray The Bay [as] a rejuvenated brand,” says Dickinson.
It’s a positioning that he had coincidentally begun to realize two years prior to Brooks’ arrival with the development of La Collection, a fashion-centric reality series based in Quebec, which launched in the fall of 2009. Created in conjunction with TVA, the show features top Quebec-based designers working in a location resembling The Bay’s downtown Montreal store, creating lines or new items that ultimately show up for sale in all The Bays in Quebec. The finale of La Collection’s first season collected over one million viewers in the province. It’s second season kicked off this fall.
The Bay moved ahead with the program following its top-level shakeup, says Dickinson, because it supported the brand’s newly minted positioning as a destination that connects to a fashion-involved crowd.  
During the first year of the turnaround strategy Dickinson and his team found themselves in the thick of a research project that tapped the brainpower of over 7,000 consumers across the country to re-segment the Canadian marketplace – by brand, by store, by smaller market, by purchase behaviours and attitudes. A major understanding gleaned from the research was that stores need to reflect local tastes, and in the case of major Canadian metropolitan markets like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, people clamour for exclusive, high-end brands.
“I think a department store issue in the last 20 years was that providing commodity assortments in a bigger format is not enough to attract today’s consumers,” says Dickinson. “They have to believe you are offering something they aren’t going to get somewhere else and the way that’s done in today’s world is through brands and exclusivity.”
Thus, in the second year of the turnaround strategy came the revival of The Room and the debut of White Spaces, which have since breathed new life into the country’s oldest retailer, executed to not only develop an in-store roster of a new tier of high-end designer brands, but also reclaim credibility and respect it had lost to niche stores and boutiques with an increasingly fashion-savvy customer base. 
The Room, formerly called the St. Regis Room, was started 72 years ago at Simpson’s, before The Bay bought out the chain. In its heyday, it was a destination that catered to the fashion whims of affluent shoppers, introducing labels like Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta to Canada. 
The fall 2009 relaunch at The Bay’s flagship Queen Street location in Toronto is, in many ways, an attempt to reclaim the glory of days past. Designed by internationally renowned Toronto-based duo Yabu Pushelberg, it resembles a pristine gallery space, with a VIP platinum suite and concierge. That’s all to complement its high-end fashion brands for women – including Balmain, Aquilano.Rimondi, John Galliano and Canadian labels such as Jeremy Laing, Wayne Clark and Andy Thê-Anh – existing at price points that, in some cases, are high enough to almost breach the stratosphere.    
“We have over 70 designer labels in that space that are sourced, many of them, very exclusively from Europe because Toronto is a very sophisticated world-class city and there are definitely consumers of that type of product who, if it wasn’t available here, would be flying to Paris and New York to buy it,” says Dickinson.
Landing The Bay a Retail Council of Canada award for large chain store design at the Excellence in Retail Awards in June, The Room was launched with an event befitting the exclusive space. It featured guests such as Canadian model Daria Werbowy, designers including Erdem, Jeremy Laing and Kimberley Newport-Mimran (Pink Tartan), plus socialites and a smattering of other influencers within the fashion and pop-culture worlds. Given their combined clout with fashion-minded followers (in person and on Twitter), Dickinson and his team predominantly relied on the power of influence to spread word of The Room.
“The best promotion is one friend telling another,” he says. “The credibility that a person who is known for their fashion has within their small community is what they can provide, and giving their blessing to a shopping destination is huge.”
They also turned to these influencers to promote the opening of the White Space at an invite-only event at the Toronto Queen Street location in March, which was co-hosted by Fashion magazine. Attended by about 300 Toronto trendsetters, the event featured laptop stations set up around the chic, contemporary space so partygoers could tweet about the event and the space, which still features designer brands, but at more affordable prices.
The Bay has since opened up White Spaces in Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto’s Yorkville store, offering designer fashions, like The Room, but at more affordable prices.

But a department store does not thrive on niche alone and to re-engage the masses last year it leveraged the biggest event of 2010, the Olympics. To tout The Bay’s status as the official apparel sponsor of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Dickinson and his team worked with John St.  to develop the “We were made for this” positioning.
“We wanted to use it as a platform to remind Canada about our role in the country, as a really foundational element, and do it in the context of patriotism, pride and people’s desire to participate in the Winter Games themselves,” says Dickinson.
Implementing a media mix that included TV, outdoor and print, and making all related apparel available across the entire HBC store pantheon – including the now infamous red mittens that even Oprah Winfrey had to have – the program exceeded sales targets by 60%. The mittens alone brought in $12 million and are still going strong, having been redesigned and reissued for the holidays.
But, the best part of the past year for Dickinson has been conversations he’s had  with The Bay customers, who’ve been sending in over 200 letters every week.
“My favourite thing is when people come to me and say, ‘Boy, you guys are just doing something special and I’m thinking of The Bay in a whole different way,’” says Dickinson.

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