Skip to main content

Ian Rosen at Harry Rosen's Toronto flagship store, on Sept. 8, 2020.Kyle Wilson/The Canadian Press

At one point during the pandemic, luxury men’s wear retailer Harry Rosen Inc. – purveyor of some of the world’s top designer labels – couldn’t keep a tracksuit in stock.

The store known for dressing Canada’s most prominent elite in tailored suits saw that same clientele reaching for – or clicking on – its athletic wear and sneakers.

“Harry Rosen is not just about suits,” says Ian Rosen, executive vice-president of digital and strategy and grandson of the retailer’s eponymous founder.

“It’s about helping men feel and do their best no matter if it’s in their personal or professional lives.”

That focus has led the company to expand its casual wear collection and break into a new category – grooming – all while completely rebuilding its digital experience.

It hasn’t been easy.

Harry Rosen wasn’t immune to pandemic restrictions that curtailed office work and social events over the past year – measures that sent iconic men’s wear retailers such as Brooks Brothers and Tailored Brands, the parent company of Moores Clothing, into bankruptcy proceedings.

“It’s been a really tough time for our industry,” Ian Rosen says. “There have been a lot of demand shocks and a lot of supply shocks that we’ve had to work through as a company.”

But the retailer, which started as a small made-to-measure men’s clothier in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood in 1954, hasn’t just survived the apparel industry crash.

It has hit the gas pedal and sped up plans it already had in place.

“We had a strategy going into 2020 and one of the early insights we had once COVID hit was that nothing’s really changing, we just have to accelerate a lot of our plans,” Mr. Rosen says.

It started with “totally wrecking and rebuilding” the company’s website, improving the e-commerce experience and partnering with FedEx to get packages to clients’ doorsteps faster, he says.

Simple website upgrades such as saving customer preferences, keeping credit card information on file and tracking orders made it easier for customers to become repeat shoppers, Mr. Rosen says.

The retailer also shifted existing brick-and-mortar relationships between its staff and customers online, allowing its wardrobe consultants to curate the website for clients down to specific size and colour recommendations, he says.

The digital overhaul paid off. The company tripled its e-commerce sales in 2020 – reaching its 2023 target three years early.

Harry Rosen also quickly expanded its athleisure offerings – adding more casual wear collections and basics like cotton T-shirts, joggers and shorts.

“There’s very few people who had demand for a suit, but a lot of people were in their houses reassessing their wardrobe.”

Now Harry Rosen is taking a step outside its core apparel category to tap into the growing demand for male grooming and personal care products.

Its foray into hair, face and body products uses a drop-ship model, meaning Harry Rosen will sell the items through its website without actually keeping all the products in stock.

Instead, items are shipped directly to the consumer from a third-party supplier – what Harry Rosen is calling its partners in the new category.

The approach allows the retailer to carry a curated selection of both “heritage brands” as well as more modern brands, all while maintaining “a seamless experience for the customer,” Mr. Rosen says.

The expansion into new categories is turning Harry Rosen into a lifestyle brand, says Anwar White of McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management.

“People can increasingly go to this brand and get all of their needs satisfied and for men, especially during the pandemic, grooming actually was a source of wellness,” says Mr. White, a faculty lecturer and program director of the master of management in retailing program.

“Men are going beyond the three-in-one shampoos and body washes. The men’s grooming category is valued at over $150-billion and it’s ripe for the taking.”

It’s a product category Ian Rosen knows well. In 2015, the retail scion says his beard reached his chest, and he got “very into personal grooming.”

In speaking with clients after he joined the family business in 2018, Mr. Rosen says he recognized there was a market for products that would be part of a daily routine.

Yet there wasn’t a single place for customers to shop that brought the best of personal care and grooming products together under one roof, Mr. Rosen says.

“That’s where we saw that there is a role for us to play here,” he says. “We don’t just expand our catalogue and go wild, we really want to introduce a point of view. So we’ve been very curated.”

Meanwhile, all of Harry Rosen’s 17 stores across Canada remain under capacity restrictions or closed to in-person shopping, making e-commerce its largest “storefront”– surpassing even its flagship locations in Toronto and Vancouver.

That ongoing online success despite pandemic shutdowns is in part due to the demographics of its customer base, experts say.

Harry Rosen’s clientele tend to have higher discretionary income – a tranche of society that hasn’t been as badly impacted by the economic downturn, they add.

“The truth is that the rich and the wealthy and the upper echelons haven’t stopped shopping,” says Farla Efros, president of HRC Retail Advisory.

“The rich are still spending, even if now it’s on tracksuits instead of tailored suits. Harry Rosen has been nimble enough to adapt to that market shift.”

Indeed, the retailer is now ready for when lockdowns lift.

“We’re definitely projecting a rebound as there’s going to be some pent-up demand,” Mr. Rosen says. “Although let’s not kid ourselves: It’s not going to be the same demand as before.”

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.