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Founder of Indigo Books and Music, Heather Reisman, outside their locations at Sherway Gardens, in Toronto, on Sept., 10, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/(Christopher Katsarov/The Globe

Heather Reisman, who built Canada’s largest book seller even as Amazon reshaped the business around her, is stepping away from her role as chief executive of Indigo Books & Music Inc., with the promotion of Peter Ruis to the top job.

Mr. Ruis joined Indigo as president in February of last year before being appointed to the CEO role on Monday.

But the announcement is not a retirement for the company’s founder. Ms. Reisman, 74, will take on the role of executive chair and “will continue to drive Indigo’s vision and growth strategy while also remaining deeply involved in the business,” according to a statement the company released on Tuesday.

“Heather’s role will be around the future vision for the business, the long-term point of view,” Mr. Ruis said in an interview. “My role is the day-to-day, running the business, the operational strategy, and really executing against that broader vision.”

Indigo trims Q4 loss and squeaks out a $3.3-million profit for the full year

That vision includes international expansion, Mr. Ruis said, noting that Indigo’s sole U.S. store, in New Jersey, is currently its best-performing location. The company plans to build more stores in the United States, and possibly in Europe over time, he said, as well as expanding its global e-commerce sales.

“We hope to double this business over the next five to 10 years and make it truly international,” Mr. Ruis said.

But in the near term, the Toronto-based retailer is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, which decimated retail sales. And the company was struggling before the global shock of COVID-19, recording a net loss in the fiscal year ended March 30, 2019. It continued to lose money through fiscal 2020 and 2021, before reporting a profit of $3.3-million on revenues of $1.1-billion in its most recent fiscal year ended April 2.

Indigo is also grappling with shifting consumer habits and macroeconomic pressures, including supply chain snags, higher fuel costs and inflation. These factors contributed to a wider net loss in its first quarter this year compared to last. The company is preparing for the crucial holiday period, which is typically when Indigo makes most of its money for the year.

Indigo also announced on Tuesday that its chief customer and digital officer, Andrea Limbardi, has been appointed president.

Ms. Reisman opened the first big-box Indigo bookstore in Burlington, Ont., 25 years ago, on Sept. 4, 1997. In 2001, the company merged with Chapters, becoming the largest book retailer in the country.

Like other bookstore chains, Indigo faced increasing competitive pressure from the explosive growth of Amazon. For many years, Indigo has coped with those changes by expanding its focus, selling general merchandise such as housewares, children’s toys, candles, pens and accessories including wallets and scarves. In the past two years, this strategy has accelerated with the launch of more private-label brands – such as a homeware line called OUI, paper and stationery brand Nota, apparel and accessories collection Love & Lore, and kids’ furniture and decor line Mini Maison.

General merchandise now makes up nearly half of Indigo’s sales, and Mr. Ruis said he believes such products help to draw customers into stores more frequently than books, which are easier to buy online.

“COVID accelerated a lot of changes across the industry,” retail industry consultant George Minakakis said. “If I were in their shoes, I’d say you’re going to have to scale back the number of stores. There are just too many of them. And how are you going to enhance the experience so people really, really want to come back and shop?”

Drawing people into stores is a priority: While retail traffic has improved over the past year, it is still 20 per cent to 30 per cent lower than it was three years ago, Mr. Ruis said, but he expects further recovery as people return to offices more frequently.

In the early days of the pandemic, Indigo closed 15 of its smaller-format stores, and has since pared back another 10 locations: As of the first quarter, the retailer had 172 stores across Canada.

“I’m still a great believer in stores,” Mr. Ruis said. “It’s obviously going to be, still, a digital revolution, but we’ve got 170-odd stores, and I think we’re going to build some more over the next five years.”

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