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Simons fashions itself into major anchor tenant

La Maison Simons spent more than $40-million in establishing its first store outside Quebec in the West Edmonton Mall.

La Maison Simons, which dates back to an 1840 dry-goods store founded by an entrepreneurial Scottish immigrant newly arrived in Quebec, took until 2012 to expand beyond its home province.

With annual sales of more than $300-million, the privately owned department store chain is now making up for lost time. In addition to eight stores in Quebec, Simons is expanding into other parts of Canada with as many as four more stores scheduled to open in the next three years.

At least one will be a new build while the others will be the result of costly renovations of pre-existing space. All the properties will place a premium on high-end retail design inclusive of innovative architecture, contemporary furnishings and commissioned art work by leading artists.

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It's how president Peter Simons, a self-described art and architecture junkie, is looking to put his mark on Canada's rapidly changing retail landscape: stores as beautiful as their designer label clothing.

"We are in a period where physical stores are asking themselves what they can do differently from what the Web can offer, and I think that the response to that is grabbing people with an experience," he says from his Quebec City headquarters.

"There's no doubt that for us it's a question of our store environments. We feel that a quality environment is the first step."

Creating stylish retail environments is part of a plan to establish supremacy for his Made-in-Canada brand which carries a unique mix of home decor and men's and women's fashions.

The West Edmonton Mall, where Simons first landed after bursting out of la belle province two years ago, involved an extensive renovation. This included the construction of a new glass box extension to house a massive suspended crystalline installation piece by Canadian architect Philip Beesley which Mr. Simons insisted on having to make sure his new store had presence.

The Edmonton project cost Simons at least $40-million, considerably more than what the company had previously spent on expansions. The Ghermezian family, which owns Canada's largest mall, also invested about $10-million in the store, pushing the project past the $50-million mark. Another $500,000 was spent on promotion.

"I think the building in Edmonton was an engineering and architectural feat that maybe went a little overboard," Mr. Simons says now. "It was more costly than it was initially set out to be but I'm not going to go home at night and regret that we tried to build something beautiful."

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And yet the expenditure has paid off.

The privately-held firm has generated more than $600 of sales per square foot at the Edmonton store since opening on Halloween in 2012, outperforming the industry average, Mr. Simons says.

The success of Simons at the West Edmonton Mall has since prompted other mall owners to seek it as an anchor tenant at their properties.

On the horizon are new stores planned for Ottawa's Rideau Centre in 2016 in addition to one opening in the fall of 2015 in nearby Gatineau, Que.

Also noteworthy is the property being developed for Simons at Square One in Mississauga by Oxford Properties, a project scheduled to open in 2016.

There's also talk of Simons opening next in Toronto and Calgary, but where is still a guessing game.

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In the meantime, the new Simons store at Park Royal Shopping Centre in West Vancouver is already under way with a planned opening for the fall of 2015 and a budget of $25-million.

Mr. Simons had been seriously eyeing the space left vacant by Sears at the Toronto Eaton Centre until incoming U.S. department store Nordstrom beat him to the punch. He's still smarting about it.

"It's a big chunk of space, and we tried to get it sub-divided; we are not big enough to take the whole thing," he says. "[Mall owner] Cadillac Fairview made their choice. They decided to go with Nordstrom. But that's fine," he adds. "We're going to do our thing, and make them regret that."

Mr. Simons is only half joking.

Wherever the next store is – Yorkdale Shopping Mall, managed by Oxford Properties, is said to be a contender – count on it to stand out.

The new 100,000-square-foot West Coast location will occupy the western end of the Park Royal Mall, formerly the site of a food store. Part of the mall will be torn down and rebuilt as a block housing Simons and other commercial retail tenants.

Toronto firm DesignStead is handling the retail design which will reference the art and culture of the Squamish Nation, a West Coast Salish tribe local to the area. Mr. Simons calls it "a unique architectural concept."

Unique is his favourite word when it comes to describing his stores.

"It's going to be about local textures and and weaving traditions," Mr. Simons says. "I like the idea of textile traditions being interpreted architecturally. I think that has some interest."

Simons chose the location because the mall's owner, Larco Investments Ltd., is family-run.

"But I think they're great partners because they're private enterprises. They're able to take a little bit more of a unique, not solely financial, look at the affair at hand. They're able to take some risks that they believe in without necessarily always having to justify [them] with the next quarter's return."

"I really think when you're talking about building something, as opposed to just buying cash flow," he continues, "that kind of freedom makes a difference."

Maureen Atkinson, a senior partner with the Toronto branch of retail consultancy company, J.C. Williams Group, believes Mr. Simons is on to something.

"If all people wanted to do was buy something, then the Internet is easier. So there's got to be an experience, and that's what he's talking about."

"I think he's a very smart retailer," Ms. Atkinson adds. "There are a lot of boring stores around and they just don't cut it. You have to be better than that."

But is the Internet killing off bricks-and-mortar retailers?

Chris Lund, chief executive officer of Perennial Design, a Toronto-based retail store design and strategy company, thinks not.

According to Statistics Canada, e-commerce accounts for less than 6 per cent of total Canadian retail sales. It's slightly higher in the United States at less than 9 per cent, he writes in a report published in the Strategy trade magazine: "The lion's share of Canadian retail sales, 94 per cent, is still done at traditional brick-and-mortar locations …"

For savvy retailers, Mr. Lund concludes, "brick-and-mortar retail will continue to thrive and grow."

Mr. Simons is positioning himself as one of those savvy retailers.

"We're there for the long term, so we've got to try," he says. "We want to build a world-class Canadian brand and there are none left, really."

An earlier online version of this story incorrectly spelled Larco Investments.

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