Multi-brand luxury retailer Holt Renfrew has shuttered its downtown Edmonton store, ending a 70-year run in Alberta’s Capital City. Amid a shift in strategy for the large-format retailer, many of Holt Renfrew’s concession brand partners were said to have not been interested in having an expanded presence in Edmonton’s downtown core, and the exit of Louis Vuitton to West Edmonton Mall is said to have been a major factor leading to the decision to ultimately close Holts’ Edmonton store. It comes at a time when Edmonton’s downtown core is seeing new developments that are shifting the retail focus northward.
The Edmonton Holt Renfrew store, located at the Manulife Place shopping complex, shut down on Saturday after holding an extended clearance sale. The store spanned two levels of retail space that included a second-level restaurant, as well as a basement level utilized for storage and back-of-house operations along with staff areas. About 100 people were employed in the store prior to its closing.
Holt Renfrew had operated stores in Edmonton since 1950. Holt Renfrew’s first Edmonton store opened at 10336 Jasper Avenue in 1950 after the retailer purchased the building in 1949. For years, Holt Renfrew shared the Jasper Avenue building with upscale menswear retailer Henry Singer at a time when Jasper Avenue was a vibrant shopping street that also boasted a large Birks jewellery store at the northeast corner of Jasper Avenue and 104 Street. Holts also opened a small standalone men’s store in a since-demolished retail plaza at the nearby historic Hotel MacDonald in the 1950’s which operated for years.
The 10336 Jasper Avenue Holt Renfrew store spanned 12,000 square feet when it was renovated in 1971, including a new building facade. The store continued to operate on Jasper Avenue for more than a decade along a stretch known for its upscale retailers that included several notable fur purveyors. In 1982, Holts moved into the retail podium of the newly constructed Manulife Place Tower at 10180 101 Street, marking a shift northward for retail in Edmonton’s downtown core away from Jasper Avenue. That trend continues to this day, with the core shifting again northward with the development of the ICE District.
Holt Renfrew’s exit from Edmonton leaves a hole in the city’s downtown core that will be hard to fill — Holt Renfrew was considered to be the go-to place for big brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci in the city, and a handful of other upscale multi-brand stores will serve downtown Edmonton though none carry many of the brands that Holt Renfrew has become known for.
And the big brands that Holt Renfrew carries are part of the reason that Holt Renfrew is closing its downtown store. In May of 2019, the company said, “After looking at a variety of options in the area and careful financial and market analysis, it was determined that Holt Renfrew’s enhanced specialty luxury business model requires a significantly larger store footprint to host the experiences and deep merchandise offering of its core brand partners.”
While the statement is vague, insiders explained that many of Holt Renfrew’s brand partners were disinterested in operating large concession spaces in downtown Edmonton. Holt Renfrew’s new retail strategy, which has progressed over the past several years, includes leasing much of the space within Holt Renfrew stores to the world’s top luxury brands. Brand partners such as Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Chanel, and others did not see downtown Edmonton as a place that would see robust business and given the importance of these brands, Holt Renfrew had to make a difficult decision.
French luxury brand Louis Vuitton made the decision to relocate its Edmonton store last year, which is said to have been one of the reasons that Edmonton’s Holt Renfrew ultimately closed. Louis Vuitton operated a concession space at Holt Renfrew in Edmonton for years, starting as a handbag counter in the 1990’s. Louis Vuitton’s sales at Holt Renfrew in Edmonton were said to be about $20 million, representing more than half of all sales at Holt Renfrew’s downtown Edmonton store. Losing Vuitton was said to have been the nail in the coffin for keeping Holts in downtown Edmonton — Vuitton opened a 4,500-square-foot store at West Edmonton Mall in June of 2019 and several other luxury brands carried at Edmonton’s Holt Renfrew store are also expected to announce stores at West Edmonton Mall in 2020.
For several years, Holt Renfrew was in discussions to expand its presence in the Edmonton market, according to sources. The 32,000-square-foot Holt Renfrew store at Edmonton’s Manulife Place could have expanded to encompass the entire retail podium of the Manulife Place, which also includes a tall office tower above it. Other retail tenants were said to be relocating for the Holt Renfrew store expansion though ultimately, it never happened.
High-end menswear retailer Henry Singer was said to have been considering moving into the ICE District as part of the shuffle at Manulife Place, and other tenants such as restaurant concept Zenari’s had already relocated in anticipation of Holts’ expansion.
Since about 2013, sources confirm that Holt Renfrew had been in talks to relocate its store either to nearby Edmonton City Centre, or to West Edmonton Mall.
In downtown Edmonton, designs were created for a new two-level Holt Renfrew store that would have spanned nearly 100,000 square feet at Edmonton City Centre, featuring an expansive facade facing onto Churchill Square. It was part of a bigger plan to create a cultural district that would have included the since-shelved arts-focused Galleria project. US-based retailer Target would have been another anchor at Edmonton City Centre, though the crash in oil prices and the disastrous exit of Target from Canada in early 2015 both saw the Edmonton City Centre redevelopment plans shelved, including the proposed Holt Renfrew flagship store.
At the same time, Holt Renfrew was said to have been in talks with West Edmonton Mall to open a store there. Several options were on the table. That included building a large Holt Renfrew store where the mall’s T&T grocery store is located, with Holt Renfrew fronting onto the busy second-level mall across from Tiffany & Co. and the recently opened Canada Goose store. Another option would have involved building Holt Renfrew a new store near the mall’s ‘Phase 1’ that would have included an entrance onto a marble-clad section of the mall with crystal chandeliers that was being positioned as a luxury wing. Construction on the proposed Holt Renfrew store was said to have started on speculation, though a deal to open was never finalized. Cineplex-owned entertainment concept ‘The Rec Room’ now occupies the space that could have become Holt Renfrew.
The Edmonton Holt Renfrew closure is part of the retailer’s strategy to operate large flagship stores across Canada. In March, Holt Renfrew’s 75,000-square-foot Montreal store on Sherbrooke Street West will also be closing — Holts isn’t exiting the Montreal market as it is in Edmonton, however. Rather, Holts is merging with the Ogilvy department store a few hundred feet south on Ste-Catherine Street West and when finished in the spring, the 250,000-square-foot Holt Renfrew Ogilvy store will be the largest luxury store in Canada and one of the largest on the continent.
When the Edmonton store closes and the Montreal stores become one, Holt Renfrew will operate six stores in Canada as well as a standalone men’s store on Bloor Street in Toronto. Holts operates a single store in downtown Vancouver as well as stores in downtown Calgary, three stores in the Greater Toronto Area, and the massive Holt Renfrew Ogilvy store in Montreal. Excluding the 16,500-square-foot Toronto men’s store, Holt Renfrew’s Canadian stores will span at least 130,000 square feet each.
As part of Holt Renfrew’s large-format store strategy, the retailer shuttered three other locations about five years ago. In January of 2015, Holts closed a 36,000 square foot store in downtown Ottawa at 240 Sparks Street, a 33,000 square foot store at Place Ste-Foy in Quebec City, as well as a 3,000 square foot ‘shopping suite’ at Portage Place in downtown Winnipeg.
Holt Renfrew’s history in Quebec City went as far back as 1837 when the company was founded in the city as a small fur shop. The Edmonton Holt Renfrew store survived these other locations by about five years, which is commendable. Holt Renfrew has invested more than $400-million into its store network to create productive large-format stores which are said to be outperforming competitors Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in Canada.
Holt Renfrew’s exit from downtown Edmonton leaves a significant hole in the city’s core. Affluent Edmonton residents are less likely to make a trip downtown, which calls into question the future of upscale multi-brand retailers Henry Singer for men and Blu’s for women. A robust downtown office population may continue to sustain these retailers during the week, though the Holt Renfrew store and its Louis Vuitton boutique were important high-end main attractions.
Over the years, downtown Edmonton’s retail footprint has been reduced significantly. That includes the loss of department stores as well as shopping centre spaces that were either repurposed or demolished. In the 1990’s, downtown Edmonton was home to a six-level Woodward’s department store facing Churchill Square in the Edmonton Centre shopping complex, while Eaton’s occupied a space in the shopping complex formerly known as the Edmonton Eaton Centre — located across the street from each other, the shopping centres have since merged and are now known as Edmonton City Centre. A 360,000-square-foot Hudson’s Bay department store operated for decades on Jasper Avenue between 102 and 103 Streets — the massive space is now part of the University of Alberta’s ‘Enterprise Square’.
In years past, as well, Manulife Place had a second phase across the street from its current location. Called Manulife Place II, the two-level retail centre housed dozens of stores, including leather goods retailer Bree and local women’s specialty retailer Purple Cat. Blu’s Womenswear, which is now located in Manulife Place across from the former Holt Renfrew store, operated a two-level storefront at Manulife Place II for years prior to the shopping centre’s demolition — DynaLIFE Medical Labs now occupies the site.
Commerce Place, as it is now known, is connected to Manulife Place on both retail levels. Commerce Place, which includes an office tower above (a second was proposed by never built) opened in 1990, it was branded as ‘City Centre’ and housed upscale tenants including a large Plaza Escada store as well as Alfred Sung and Ports International. Henry Singer’s flagship store operated in a large space in the Commerce Place building for years before relocating to Manulife Place — the former Henry Singer building is now occupied by a Tim Horton’s. While Sunterra Market and several food and beauty retailers operate within Commerce Place, much of the retail space is unused though a Goodlife Fitness centre will be opening there this spring.
The future of Manulife Place is in flux with the closure of Holt Renfrew. Manulife Place has seen several other prominent store closures over the past couple of years, including Montreal-based jeweller Birks and German luxury brand Escada. A source with a major brokerage explained how Manulife Place is “on the wrong side of the tracks, literally” in Edmonton’s downtown core which will see a rapid transit line run down 102 Avenue that will separate Manulife Place from Edmonton City Centre across the street. However Manulife has since announced a redevelopment of the Manulife Place at a cost of $30 million.
“The centre of gravity in downtown Edmonton is shifting to the ICE District,” said the source, who predicted that other retail tenants may look to the area as retail moves northward. The source also predicts that much of the former Edmonton Eaton Centre building, now the western half of Edmonton City Centre, could be demolished for intensification. That could include a residential tower that would be built on the site of the mall’s Hudson’s Bay store, which in years past was occupied by Eaton’s. Oxford Properties recently sold Edmonton City Centre to a German company.
The ICE District, which includes more than 200,000 square feet of retail space as well as hotel, office and residential tower components, represents a significant investment in downtown Edmonton. A new Loblaw City Market grocery store will serve an expanding residential population, and a major sports and entertainment facility, as well as a new casino, are drawing in visitors to the area. Losing Holt Renfrew is still a loss, nevertheless. If the Hudson’s Bay department store were to close for redevelopment, as some are speculating, Edmonton’s downtown core would have lost all of its downtown department stores. That would put Edmonton in the same league as many cities in the US, as the department store model continues to fall out of fashion, at least in North America. Department stores continue to thrive in parts of Europe and Asia, however.
Downtown Edmonton’s loss is West Edmonton Mall’s gain. Besides Louis Vuitton, West Edmonton Mall is home to a Canada Goose store that opened over the summer, as well as luxury jewellery brand Tiffany & Co. which has operated in the mall since October of 2013. As with Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co. gained its foothold in the Edmonton Market as a licensed boutique space within Holt Renfrew in years past.
While losing Holt Renfrew is a blow to downtown Edmonton, the core is seeing a revival that includes new office towers, residential buildings, and restaurants. Newly built LRT transit lines promise to connect the city while making downtown more accessible from the suburbs. Public realm improvements and other efforts to attract people to downtown Edmonton could see the area become increasingly vibrant, though suburban shopping centres will ultimately dominate Edmonton’s retail scene. Shoppers seeking an upscale experience will likely head to West Edmonton Mall, which will soon see the addition of valet parking.
Southgate Centre, which is Canada’s fifth most productive shopping centre in terms of annual sales per square foot, will see redevelopment of a 267,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Sears that will act as another draw for the region. Edmonton is also home to an outlet mall and several big-box ‘power centres’ that includes South Edmonton Common, considered to be the largest and best of its kind in Canada.