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Meghan Roach, President and CEO of Roots, beside the relaunched Beaver Canoe collection on June 14.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The nostalgic Beaver Canoe brand is making a comeback.

Retailer Roots Corp. ROOT-T announced plans on Tuesday to relaunch the brand first made popular in the 1980s. A line of sweats, T-shirts and accessories is now hitting stores and has begun selling online, with an ad campaign kicking off next week.

Beaver Canoe apparel has not been sold in stores since a 2013 partnership with Target Canada ended with that retailer’s retreat from the Canadian market less than two years later. But that short-lived Target line, and the brand’s enduring presence on secondhand e-commerce sites, sent a signal to current Roots executives.

“When Target first launched this, they did $20-million in sales in the first year. So we see a ton of potential upside for the business longer term,” Roots chief executive Meghan Roach said in an interview. “There’s so much nostalgia around Beaver Canoe. ... We’re seeing the positive market trends in terms of this performing in the resale market. We’re seeing the positive trends towards a focus on some of those retro logos. As a company that has 50 years of history, and the Beaver Canoe brand that has been around for 40 years, we have an ability to really authentically play in that space.”

For Roots, the brand’s revival is a return to, well, its roots. The company’s co-founders, Michael Budman and Don Green, first met at Camp Tamakwa in Ontario’s Algonquin Park in the 1960s. When the camp’s co-founder and canoe guide, Omer Stringer, began building canoes in his retirement under the brand Beaver Canoe, the partners financed the business. Roots then launched a line of sweatshirts and other casual camping-inspired apparel – featuring Beaver Canoe’s diamond-shaped logo adorned with conifers – in 1982.

With a shift in tastes in the 1990s, the line was discontinued. But it has held a retro appeal ever since. A 30th-anniversary collection sold out at Roots stores. Unlike that limited-time run, however, this 40th anniversary relaunch is the beginning of long-term plans at Roots for Beaver Canoe.

“Part of the design process was actually looking at how people were buying vintage in the resale market, how they were styling it, how they were wearing it,” Roots chief product officer Karuna Scheinfeld said in an interview. “There are so many products we could put Beaver Canoe on. Little by little, we’ll be looking at the consumer response and the consumer demand, and then scaling it to what we think is appropriate long-term.”

While Beaver Canoe’s products for humans have been on manufacturing hiatus, dogs have been doing brisk business for the brand. Since 2017, PetSmart Canada has sold a line of Beaver Canoe-branded apparel, toys and accessories. The line is a partnership with Toronto-based Canada Pooch, which also makes Roots-branded pet accessories.

“It’s been really successful and continues to be a business that we want to support, because the pet space has definitely been growing during the pandemic,” Ms. Roach said.

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Beaver Canoe clothing at the Roots store on Bloor St. West.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The relaunch of Beaver Canoe at Roots is part of a larger strategy over the past two years, as Roots has been expanding into new product categories, as well as various design collaborations to draw renewed interest in its brand. For example, an athleisure collection featuring sweat-wicking fabrics has been performing well and is a continuing area of investment, Ms. Roach said.

There is a trend right now with logos from the eighties and nineties seeing renewed popularity, Ms. Scheinfeld added.

“Within Ontario particularly, but also the whole country, there’s this really incredible emotional connection [with Beaver Canoe.] ... We saw stories people had posted about stealing them from their parents and wearing them now,” she said.

Even as customers’ shopping habits have shifted – with many people buying more formal clothing to return to the office and as social events pick up – Roots has continued to see demand for its casual apparel, she said.

Roots reported a net loss of $5.3-million or 13 cents a share in the first quarter, compared with a loss of $4.9-million or 12 cents in the same period last year.

The company’s results were positively affected last year by rent abatements and government subsidies, which narrowed the previous-year loss.

Roots reported total sales of $43.1-million in the quarter ended April 30, up 15 per cent compared with last year.

Like other retailers, Roots has been seeing its costs go up – including for raw materials, and for pricier air freight as companies fly in products to get them to store shelves on time for the season and to get around supply-chain bottlenecks. Roots implemented a “small” price increase in some of its core products at the beginning of the quarter to offset some of these pressures, and so far customers have tolerated the higher prices, Ms. Roach said on the call.

All of Roots’ stores are now open, compared to the same time a year ago when partial pandemic-related lockdowns shuttered roughly 30 per cent of its locations. Traffic to corporate-owned Roots stores grew significantly in the quarter, while e-commerce revenues fell slightly as people chose to shop differently as COVID-19 restrictions abated. Overall, direct-to-consumer sales (which account for both corporate-owned store sales and e-commerce sales) grew to $37.4-million in the quarter, compared to $31.4-million last year.

Partner and other sales fell slightly to $5.7-million, from $5.9 million in the prior year. A shift in the timing of wholesale orders led to a reduction in business in Taiwan, according to the company, although sales of Roots products have been growing on in China.

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Follow Susan Krashinsky Robertson on Twitter: @susinskyOpens in a new window

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