Locale’s artful kickoff

Aldo Group’s Douglas Bensadoun puts his best foot forward with a new store concept that brings local artists into the retail environment.

Imagine a shoe store where art hangs on the walls instead of lifestyle photography and product shots; where the in-store magazine features articles about visual artists and Canadian indie bands, contributed by writers with a CBC pedigree. For Douglas Bensadoun, creative director and general manager of marketing, Aldo Group, it’s not just a pipe dream – it’s a new store concept called Locale.
Launched at the end of last summer, with mall locations in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, Locale is opening its ninth store – and first street-level flagship – this month on Montreal’s busy
Ste-Catherine Street. If it’s received well, Bensadoun hopes a downtown Toronto flagship will be next.
But first Locale has to prove itself a viable business. Millions of dollars were spent on developing the concept, Bensadoun says, with store design and brand strategy by New York-based Pompei A.D., and 2011 will be a make-or-break year.
“If the store is viable and is making sense from a financial standpoint, we will go from nine locations to 15, to 20, up to 45,” he says. “Essentially, at the end of 2011 [we’ll say], ‘Alright, let’s see what the results are looking like and go from there.’”
Aldo Group has proven itself quite adept at brand building in the past. The company started in 1972 as a shoe concession helmed by Aldo Bensadoun, Douglas’s father, housed within Le Château clothing stores in Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg. The first freestanding Aldo store opened in 1978 in Montreal, and between 1980 and 1993, the company launched 95 stores in Canada.
Seizing upon its Canadian success, the company expanded south of the border, launching 125 Aldo stores over the next eight years, and also added new retail banners such as Transit and Feetfirst. In 1995, Aldo Group went international, opening its first franchise stores in Israel, and by 2002 it had expanded to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and London.
It now has stores across the world, from South Africa to Poland, operating under banners that include Aldo, Aldo Accessories, Call It Spring, Feetfirst, Globo and Little Burgundy. As the global expansion continues, the Aldo Group is expected to have more than 600 franchise stores and nearly 1,000 corporately owned stores by the end of the year, spread across 66 countries.
Before Locale can join this $1.5-billion-a-year international empire, it’s got to make it here at home. The biggest challenge right now, Bensadoun says, is making consumers aware of the new banner and what it stands for. Locale has been taking over retail spaces previously occupied by Feetfirst, which specializes in comfortable footwear, and while Locale carries some of the same national brands (in addition to its own house brand), it’s aimed at a different target.
“What happens is that the old Feetfirst customer is coming into Locale and doesn’t totally get it,” he says. “It skews younger than what they’re familiar with and it’s a much more progressive concept.”

But while Locale is aiming at a younger demo than Feetfirst, it’s steering clear of Aldo’s trendy turf with a 25-to-45 target whose interest in what’s cool is tempered by self-awareness, Bensadoun says.
“The idea is to attract a post-Aldo customer,” he says. “It’s not as fashion-forward or fast-fashion as Aldo; it’s more about simplicity and style. I’m 38 and Locale’s a place where I would definitely shop.”
With this target firmly in mind, Locale promises comfort features and wearable heel heights without the stigma of sensible footwear – and throws in a unique shopping environment to boot.
The retail space is designed to evoke the spirit of an artist’s loft, with overhead beams, pendant lights, a chalkboard wall and front windows that open. 
“All the visual space in the store is occupied by local artists,” Bensadoun explains. “It’s staying true to the idea of being a local, community-minded shopping destination and also a bit of a cultural centre at the same time.”
Artwork is displayed for about five months, and each artist is put on the shortlist for the Locale Art Award, which will dole out an annual prize of $20,000 starting in spring 2012.
“I think [what] distinguishes us from other fashion retailers – or any retailers for that matter – is that we’re not fronting,” Bensadoun says. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is, because we believe in it. There’s also an aspect of corporate social responsibility.”
Locale’s connection to the local arts community is reinforced within the store’s primary advertising vehicle, Locale magazine. Produced in-house and printed on luxe matte paper stock, the biannual 52-page magazine is primarily distributed in store. An abridged 24-page version is also being inserted into La Presse and the Montreal Gazette this month to coincide with the flagship store launch, in a media buy arranged by Media Experts. The spring/summer 2011 issue brings together interviews with Locale’s exhibiting artists, footwear fashion spreads and mini-profiles of local celebs like Canadian band Young Galaxy and MuchMusic VJ Sarah Taylor.
“The people we are including in the magazine become ambassadors for the brand,” Bensadoun says. “It’s hard to find that balance between art and commerce, where people don’t feel that they’re being somehow taken advantage of by the big, bad corporate dudes. [But] every single one of them is super-interested in doing it, and it’s because we’re doing it with integrity.”

Bensadoun’s commitment to the arts is rooted in his own personal history. Although footwear is a long-time family business – his grandfather was a shoe retailer in Morocco and France, while his great-grandfather was a cobbler in Algeria – Bensadoun spent 10 years working in the film industry before joining his father, Aldo Group’s CEO, and older brother David, the company’s VP.
He says his experience as a producer and director comes in handy in his current role. “Filmmaking is about storytelling and I think what we’re doing with the brands we’re creating is telling stories,” he says.
But as he’s quick to point out, “I’m not interested in theoretical artsy ideas that don’t end up connecting with the customer and resulting in people making a purchase.”
Bensadoun hopes that Locale’s engagement in the arts will make consumers “feel we’ve curated our product collection with the same type of integrity that we’ve commissioned this writer [for the magazine] or this photographer. It’s about gaining the trust and loyalty of our customers through producing solid creative work.”
Bensadoun’s artistic influence has also been felt in Aldo’s recent advertising, for which the creative is handled internally and used internationally. After years of print-focused campaigns, the brand added TV to the mix for its spring/summer 2010 collection, with a campaign featuring supermodel Jessica Stam and shot by fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Since then, Aldo has continued to invest in TV spots, with both Stam and Richardson making reappearances.
When asked about the sudden increase in TV usage, Bensadoun laughs, saying, “I want to make more films, so the best way to do that is to convince the people who have their hands on the purse strings here [to use TV].” But he’s quick to add, “It’s not just that. I also think that it’s a very effective means if you do it properly.”
With a limited budget allotted, Bensadoun and his team have had to be crafty with Aldo’s media spend. He explains, “We’d get in touch with our media agency [Media Experts] and say, ‘Hey, are there last-minute specials or anything like that?’”
In fact, this is how Aldo’s first TV spot with Jessica Stam ended up running during the Olympics. “That opportunity came up because one of the main sponsors on the station we were advertising on backed out at the last minute,” he says. “We paid 20% of the price.”
Aldo has also been experimenting with more digital lately. Last fall, the brand launched an online contest called “Let’s Dance,” asking consumers in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. to show off their fancy footwork for the chance to win $2,500 or a gift card. Entrants submitted videos of themselves dancing to a song by Montreal band Think About Life, and then shared them with as many people as possible, with points assigned for every YouTube view, Facebook share or Twitter post.
About 250 videos were entered and Bensadoun says the quality of entries surpassed his expectations. “I couldn’t believe how much time, effort and creativity people put into it,” he says, noting the complex choreography and high production values evident in some of the videos.
Digital will be especially important in getting Locale up and running, Bensadoun says. “Locale’s not in a position right now, from a business perspective, to have a huge media spend so it’s really about leveraging social media.” A Facebook and Twitter campaign is launching in conjunction with the Montreal flagship, with plans to build an online community of bloggers.
Whether Locale’s artsy approach will find an appreciative audience remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Bensadoun is enjoying the effort. “On a personal level, I’m a big art fan,” he says, “and to infuse what I do on a daily basis with art the way we’re doing here makes coming to work a real pleasure.”

BIO

Born: Montreal, QC. Feb. 8, 1973
Education: Bensadoun studied at La Sorbonne and L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, ultimately receiving a BA in political science
from Tufts University.
Career: He started out in the film industry, working in Canada and L.A., and founded a production company called Darling Films, where he directed and produced several films, including At the Quinte Hotel and Au Suivant. In 2003, he became an account manager and creative consultant at Bureaux, a fashion branding and marketing agency in London. He joined the buying department of Aldo in 2006, transferring to the marketing department to become creative advisor in 2008. Later that year, he was promoted to creative director, and in 2009 he added the title of general manager of marketing.
Size of marketing team: 55

3 QUESTIONS

What’s your favourite way to unwind?
Popcorn, kosher dill pickles and seasons 1, 3 or 4 of The Wire.
 
How many pairs of shoes do you own?
Less than you’d think but still way too many. Probably about 20.

With your background in filmmaking, we have to ask: what’s your favourite film?
Impossible question. Amarcord or Miller’s Crossing or Le Dîner des Cons.