Fashionably late?

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal and on its website.
May 18, 2009 (May 20 on

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An OBJ reporter joins the search for a popular retailer and other peddlers of fashionable wares

Ever since those surreal television commercials began airing in March, depicting a curly-haired blond and swarthy suit-clad man in rooms with ladders and Alice-in-Wonderland doors, I’ve been one of many Ottawans wondering if Swedish fashion retailer H&M is close to opening its first store in the nation’s capital.

Local retail industry observers have been buzzing about the possibility for years, and devoted Facebookers – yours truly included – have bombarded H&M’s discussion boards with pleas to bring the store to Ottawa, especially in the wake of new openings in smaller cities such as Peterborough, Ont. and Dartmouth, N.S.

Posted one online commenter: “Ottawa’s … full of young government workers who have loads of disposable income, and not one store … It’s almost insulting … Maybe one day Ottawa will be deemed ‘worthy.'”

It seems the time is nigh considering that trendy Spanish clothing chain Zara – a store targeting a similar demographic – has confirmed it’s opening its 12,000-square-foot flagship outlet at the Rideau Centre, the third-largest shopping centre on this side of the river, later in 2009.

“We have decided to open a new store in Ottawa because we think that customers from Ottawa are very fashion-oriented and, therefore, they appreciate Zara’s constant renewal of fashion offers,” Zara’s parent company, Inditex Group, wrote in an e-mail.

As well, a recent building permit shows that another ultra-hip brand – Apple Inc. – is also opening a 7,000-square-foot store on the ground floor of the downtown mall.

The slew of luxury condominium projects and other fresh developments popping up all over the city also means there’s more street-level commercial space on the market.

I’ll admit I’m somewhat of a fan of cheap-and-chic H&M and make a point to visit its stores in other cities whenever possible; I even managed to score a special-edition top that had miraculously been spared by the sharp-nailed fashion mavens jostling each other a week earlier, during the launch of a designer’s discount line at one of H&M’s downtown Toronto stores.

And so I asked Emily Scarlett, H&M’s media representative in Canada, what the deal was. “There’s nothing confirmed for 2009 … (but) Ottawa for us is a very important market and the head of our leasing department has been to Ottawa several times. It’s the perfect target market … it’s at the top of our wish list,” she said.

So why don’t we have a store yet?

“At the end of the day we’d rather wait for the best location to become available. It’s the one thing standing in the way, especially in a brand-new market and a brand-new city.”

Cindy VanBuskirk, who oversees the Rideau Centre, said the store’s absence isn’t for lack of trying. “H&M has wanted to be here for several years … Ottawa’s a great market and they’re absolutely not going to wait much longer if a good real estate opportunity presents itself,” she said. “But it’s highly likely that it will open in the Ottawa market with its first store not at the Rideau Centre.”

The one big obstacle is that H&M requires a whopping 25,000 square feet of space, roughly the size of core Rideau tenant Old Navy.

“We can’t parcel up that much space to accommodate H&M at this time …The balance between offering the local boutique-type experiences and larger-format retailers such as H&M is very important, which is why there’s only one 25,000-square-foot store in the Rideau Centre,” said Ms. VanBuskirk.

Nor is H&M going to Bayshore, even with a planned $130-million expansion in the works for the west-end mall, according to general manager Denis Pelletier.

“If we do go ahead with the work, it’ll be a complete renovation of the mall, so we’re looking at a lengthy period … I think H&M is coming in the near future, just not to Bayshore.”

The city’s largest mall, the St. Laurent Centre, didn’t provide comment.

If Ottawa’s biggest shopping centres are to be ruled out for H&M and other large-format retailers of its ilk, at least for the moment, are there any other options? While the core seems a logical choice – Ms. Scarlett agreed a street-level storefront location downtown is an option – market observers are iffy on that possibility.

“Twenty-five thousand square feet is hard to find (downtown), although perhaps in a few months or a year there may be a number of leases up for renewal,” mused Barry Nabatian of Market Research Corp., adding he thinks Kanata might be more feasible. “Downtown is the first choice, of course, but there’s not that many opportunities, whereas Kanata is becoming very urbanized and it’s become a different city with its own life.”

While Pierre Benoit, a Colliers International broker specializing in the retail market, pointed instead to the fairly busy Merivale Road or Baseline and Hunt Club areas, or College Square – which he noted already has a “concentration of fashion” stores – as potential options, he agreed that the pickings are slim in the core. “Somebody’s going to have to move tenants to create an opportunity … there’s a lack of product in the central business district.”

And perhaps that will be the way it goes down; Ms. Scarlett noted that the first H&M stores in Canada were located on the outskirts of Toronto, at the Fairview and Promenade malls.

“We are hoping that we’ll open in Ottawa in the very near future, but we cannot confirm the exact month or year,” she added.

Till then, I suppose I’ll have to content myself with the occasional trip to Montreal or Toronto if I’m in dire need of new threads.

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