Simons’ CEO charts a path towards recovery

Why the Quebec retailer's chief exec has postponed reopening stores, while expanding its online marketplace for local artisans.


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Closing all of his stores nearly two months ago was the most challenging decision Simons chief executive Peter Simons has faced as leader of the 180-year old Quebec retailer. “But,” he says, “reopening them is even harder.”

Quebec’s provincial government gave the go-ahead for certain retail stores outside of Montreal to begin reopening this week (with those in the province’s largest city to follow on May 18, after initially hoping to open a week earlier). And although his stores would qualify under the guidelines, Simons has decided to postpone opening them until at least May 19.

“You want to be sure that you’re doing it right,” he says. “Everyone’s anxious to open. I’m not denying that. But [we need time] to open properly so that customers feel good and secure and our employees feel good and secure.”

Even when the time does come, the ramp-up will be gradual and cautious.

Over the next two weeks, a team will continue reviewing store operations to ensure social distancing measures can be maintained once customers return. Nearly everything is under consideration at the moment: distributing masks and hand cleaners to customers and staff; capping the volume of customers allowed in store and limiting access to change rooms; reviewing store hours and scattering employee lunch breaks; revising return policies; and acquiring UV handrail cleaners for in-store escalators.

Some of the changes may be short-lived, depending on the pandemic’s trajectory in the weeks and months to come, but Simons says others, such as product assortment and in-store merchandising, may not be.

“Everything is on the table right now,” he says. “There’s this post-confinement, pre-vaccine period, which will be an operational and a psychological challenge for everyone. But I don’t think we’re going back to the way it was post-vaccine, either. So we’re in the process of re-imagining what we use the stores for and how we make them productive.”

The CEO believes it’s imperative for business leaders to focus on immediate challenges, rather than plan according to a complex and uncertain future, lest they lose sight of more pressing threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic is such a “complex, exogenous situation” that execs can “get mentally lost in what appears to be chaos,” he says. “The key to executing is – paradoxically – not seeing too far down the road, facing the challenges you face today and keeping people focused on executing this week.”

Yet, when it comes to growing its ecommerce business – and its reputation as a pillar of Quebec entrepreneurship – Simons has embraced emerging consumer trends, anticipating they will continue growing in influence after COVID is under control.

Fabrique 1840

Last week, the retailer announced the expansion of Fabrique 1840, an ecommerce marketplace launched in the fall of 2018 for Canadian merchants selling home decor, modern art, fashion accessories and stationary. The platform, which currently houses a roster of 117 artisans, has generated $1 million sales in the last 14 months.

Simons now hopes to grow Fabrique 1840 into a community of 500 Canadian merchants, and the timing, in some respects, couldn’t be better.

Pre-pandemic, Fabrique 1840 was experiencing triple-digit growth, according to the CEO, and its success has only accelerated during the outbreak, as a result of a “conversation going on about supporting local, smaller businesses and artisans and retailers.” In recent weeks, sales made through the platform have skyrocketed by 800% to 1,000%.

Simons says some of that growth has come from fashion, particularly at-home workwear. But the bulk of it has been in the health, wellness and comfort categories, signalling consumers want products that “enhance your home environment or lower your stress levels, which I think we all need right now.”

Its own ecommerce site has experienced triple-digit growth during the outbreak, providing the company with the oxygen needed to work its way through the last few weeks, he says. By doubling down on Fabrique 1840, it has put its faith in a sustained shift towards community support for local businesses, and as the CEO puts it, in “consuming more thoughtfully with more appreciation.”

Fabrique 1840

“That’s exactly what artisans are about,” he says. “It’s about appreciating what you’re consuming, as opposed to consuming quickly. So quality, artisanship, locality, the story behind [the artisan] I think, or I’m hoping, becomes important.”

To date, the retailer has generated demand from merchants by reaching out to them directly and convincing them of the advantages: namely, the millions of eyeballs that visit Simons’ website annually (one of the ten-most visited fashion websites in the country, according to the CEO), as well as support with marketing and product presentation. But, going forward, the company hopes a greater proportion of requests will come organically.

Simons continues to take a percentage of merchants’ sales, but the company has evolved its monthly fee structure since launch to align with low demand for certain services it initially believed artisans would need, such as access to a professional studio, and logistics for delivery, which many prefer to handle on their own.

“My dream is really a destination for Canadian artisanal craftsmanship,” says Simons, “and the more that we can group ourselves around that in Canada, the stronger it becomes.”

Photo credits: GoToVan via Flickr (featured image) and Simons.