Retail innovation in a year of digital pivots

By thinking outside (and inside) the box, brands like General Assembly and Duer emerged as pandemic success stories.

Duer - featured

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of strategy.

Shopping in 2020 was – for the most part – relegated to the windows of home internet browsers. Suddenly, top-notch online shopping portals became the retail Holy Grail. Here are some of the best success stories from retailers, restaurants and brands across Canada.

National: Simons says go local

According to CEO Peter Simons, his department store has been creating dozens upon dozens of iterations of its website, ever since first launching its ecommerce operations in 2010. It’s spent the better part of a decade regularly refining the online hub, and so when Leger surveyed 14,000 consumers last year, it came as no surprise that it was named the #1 retailer for the “best online experience in Canada,” beating out 172 other brand sites.

Fabrique 1840Much of Simons success can be pinpointed to its focus on local as a value proposition through its marketplace Fabrique 1840 (named after the year of the retailer’s founding) – a repository of craft home décor, modern art, accessories and stationery from more than 100 artisans. Simons’ goal is to eventually have 500 vendors stocking its digital shelves as it expands beyond fashion.

Before the pandemic, Fabrique 1840 was experiencing triple-digital growth, according to Simons, and that success continued to accelerate during the outbreak as a result of a “conversation [around] supporting local, smaller businesses and artisans and retailers.” Mid-way through the crisis in 2020, sales made through the platform skyrocketed by 800% to 1,000%, according to the CEO at the time.

Simons said that some of that growth came from fashion, particularly at-home workwear, but the bulk of it has been in the health, wellness and comfort categories as people looked to lower their stress and improve their immediate surroundings during stay-at-home periods. “My dream is really a destination for Canadian artisanal craftsmanship,” said Simons, “and the more that we can group ourselves around that in Canada, the stronger it becomes.”

British Columbia: Duer re-focuses on made-to-order

Many fashion retailers lost their shirts when COVID first hit, and Vancouver’s Duer seemed poised to do the same, having shed 70% of its revenue when it was forced to halt shipments to wholesalers in March 2020.

DuerFounder Gary Lenett credits its quick pivot to a “presell” model for helping to save its business during the first wave of the pandemic last year.

As part of its made-to-order “Next” program, Duer puts specific items (which is part of a dedicated collection) into production and delivery – but only if enough of a particular design is ordered by customers. (The model reverts to its humble origins when the brand launched on Kickstarter back in 2013.)

Duer says the benefits of the new sales channel are that there is no wasted inventory or fabric – making it an eco-friendlier option – while production costs are covered because customers pre-pay. The products are also more affordable, as the brand passes savings from production costs onto customers.

According to Lenett, Duer is projecting 20% total growth year-over-year at the end of this fiscal, as well as a 60% growth in its ecommerce sales. The brand currently sells to 700 retail partners worldwide.

Duer is now building a larger flagship store in Vancouver, making it the fourth location for the brand, with stores in Calgary and Toronto. The brand is known for its in-store “denim playgrounds” where shoppers can test out its signature denim and sweats on monkey bars and swings.

Ontario: General Assembly subscribes to frozen trend

When lockdowns first hit in early 2020, Toronto pizza joint General Assembly saw potential in the frozen pizza market (which according to Nielsen is up 20%) and course-corrected on two fronts. First it entered the freezer aisle in grocery, and then it launched a subscription service, going direct to its comfort-eating consumers during the pandemic.

General Assembly Pizza-General Assembly Pizza Closes -13 Million“We leveraged our experience as a restaurant – a deep adoration of our customers and a commitment to true hospitality – and brought it forward into a digital space,” says General Assembly CMO Khaleed Juma. “We also focused our energy on introducing our pizzas to an audience who was ready for choice and change.”

Juma says the new offering meets the needs of a customer who had already embraced the “freezer-to-table” trend but was looking for a more premium option. Come January 2021, the subscription service had amassed over 2,000 subscribers. Part of the pizzamaker’s pivot included transforming its downtown location into a production facility, where it produced up to 43,000 pies in March.

“I’d be lying to you if I told you that our e-commerce infrastructure was perfect, but what it did allow us to do was deliver a pizza box with more than one pizza in it — think about that,” Juma says.

Nova Scotia: AC Covert brings Maritimes to the rest of Canada

According to a recent University of Maine and University of Guelph study, while export-oriented seafood markets struggled during lockdowns, so-called alternative seafood networks (ASN) that distribute products locally flourished. Based on search traffic, Canadians are actually more interested in seafood than one might think, according to University of Guelph associate professor Philip Loring.

AC Covert Nova Scotia-based AC Covert, a distribution company owned by Cooke Seafood, tapped into this sentiment last year when it pivoted to a D2C model. The company was originally created to cater to retailers, restaurants, and the tourism and hospitality sectors in the Maritimes. But when travel restrictions prevented people from visiting Atlantic Canada, AC Covert shifted its sales focus from wholesale to home delivery.

According to the company’s VP of PR Joel Richardson, it saw an opportunity to make it easier for seafoodies to buy from the region. It created a host of seafood boxes with its True North brand products (some of which were curated for occasions like “Date Night”) and included a collection of recipes on its website. It now ships products to front doors outside of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – including major cities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Alberta.

“In the Maritimes, seafood is a huge part of our culture, which brings comfort during challenging times,” said Richardson, adding that the seafood boxes were created as a “care package” for people to send to friends and families who have been separated during the pandemic. The company has since been struggling to keep up with deliveries in response to the demand for its products, and will soon expand into the U.S with its purchase of Mariner Seafoods in Massachusetts.