The past year or so has been a rough one for most retailers across Canada and around the world. It’s been a 12-month period that has tested the resolve and character of many, pushing some to the edge of survival, and others less fortunate beyond it. And as lockdowns persist and provinces and communities across the country continue to await a full rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, it can be comfortably suggested that the resolve and character of the industry could be tested further before a post-pandemic world is welcomed. It’s been a time rife with challenges, eliciting a need for creativity, imagination and other forms of unorthodox thinking in order to survive and succeed. For Canadian-owned and family-run retailer, Showcase, the time has served as a moment of pivot and innovation, supporting the company’s growth despite the adversity faced by the industry.
Showcasing the Art of the Pivot
The company, founded in 1994 by Edmontonian, Amin Jivraj, has cultivated a name for itself over the course of more than a quarter century as the ‘Home of the Hottest Trends’. In that time, it’s generated an extensive, active, and loyal customer-base and has managed to grow its store network to 117 locations — 10 in the United States and 107 in major malls across Canada. In the years just prior to the pandemic, the company grew its staff substantially as it plotted further expansion of the Showcase brand, aiming to expand its reach into untapped markets. But when the impacts of COVID-19 began to take hold, with much of its store network restricted by lockdowns, the company knew that it needed to react. And it didn’t waste any time in doing so, immediately pivoting its business model and working with its suppliers to facilitate the quick and safe distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline workers during a time of shortage and great need. It enabled Showcase to operate as an essential service, allowing its stores to remain open throughout the pandemic. But, according to the company’s CEO, Samir Kulkarni, it most importantly provided a way in which Showcase could meaningfully contribute toward the safety and wellbeing of others and the improvement of a difficult situation.
“What we did back in March of last year represents the biggest pivot in the company’s history,” he says proudly. “We’re very used to reacting to changing trends in the marketplace. But this was a health crisis first and foremost. We were aware of the devastation that was happening on the front lines when the pandemic first hit Canada and the lack of health supplies that were available for first responders. We realized that we could make a difference and contribute positively toward the health and safety of communities. So, we rediverted our resources to help.”
Kulkarni explains that because Showcase’s base business essentially disappeared back in March of last year, along with its ability to provide the fun, interactive, discovery-based, in-store retail experience that the company has become known for, the pivot was a necessary one. It was represented by the launching of 150 SKUs of PPE, something that required bidding by the company on a global level for supplies that were at the time extremely scarce. The retailer secured these items for its stores, commissioning planeloads of inventory to be flown in from all over the world, including hand sanitizer, N-95 respirator masks and face shields, among a range of other items and equipment. Bringing the inventory in meant that more than 100 Showcase locations remained open during the first pandemic lockdown, with dedicated hours and pricing to first responders, healthcare workers and seniors. The retailer also provided bulk pricing for hospitals and governments, establishing a wholesale PPE division within its business to meet the demand. In total, Showcase has provided 11 million units of PPE, equating to an estimated $27 million worth of supplies, serving as an incredible example of pivot and innovation during the most difficult of times.
Meeting Online Demand
Becoming a provider of PPE supplies was not the only pivot that the company made in order to address the effects of the pandemic, however. A sudden spike in online activity by the company’s customers – a trend experienced by just about every retailer offering e-commerce capabilities – required Showcase to make some changes to accommodate the increased online demand.
“Our e-commerce grew substantially throughout 2020,” he says. “It’s growth that’s required a lot of adjustments to our systems and processes. Our head office and national distribution centre just outside of Toronto is 106,000 square feet. We needed to rethink and repurpose the majority of that space in order to deal with a primarily e-commerce environment for several months. We made the necessary changes and hired a substantial workforce to keep up with demand at that facility and to allow us to continue to serve our customers who still wanted to make purchases but were unable or unwilling to visit a shopping centre. It represents another critical pivot that we made, enabling our continued growth.”
Proprietary Trendspotting Technology
The company, which has grown steadily during the course of its 27-year history, achieved a 33 percent increase in sales over the past three years. And in 2020, it surpassed the $100 million revenue mark for the first time. It’s incredible growth which Kulkarni says the company is extremely proud of, attributing it to the hard work that was put in by the entire Showcase team. He describes the company’s success as a testament to its perseverance and ability to innovate during difficult times, quickly acknowledging the significance of the pivots made over the past twelve months. However, he’s just as quick to recognize the fact that Showcase’s growth has not simply been a product of these pivots, pointing to its proprietary trendspotting technology and capabilities as another one of the drivers of the company’s continued achievements.
“Most retail offerings throughout the industry tend to be driven by vendors,” he says. “The challenges with buying based on vendors or supply is that it may not be what the customer actually wants. Our philosophy is to flip the notion of vendor-based buying to develop a consumer-based strategy instead. The idea is to listen to consumers and deliver to them exactly what they’re looking for. We use sophisticated techniques powered by algorithms and machine learning to best understand what the consumer is looking for. It’s critical in driving and informing our real-time sourcing strategy, helping us to find the needle in the haystack. There are a lot of products in retail, but there are few that are truly trending. Our proprietary technology allows us to find the trending products and bring them to market immediately.”
Advantage and Differentiation
Its technology and unique method of identifying the hottest product trends via social media, website search volumes, internet posts, sentiment, general awareness and demand in the marketplace, provides Showcase with a competitive advantage and differentiation, allowing it to offer its customers more exclusives and first-to-market items. And, as Kulkarni explains, the products that the Showcase algorithms determine as trending are often nonexistent within the market, enabling the company with the opportunity to develop private label solutions to meet consumer desire. To do this, Showcase often develops products from scratch, working directly with factories, and creating the branding, packaging and visual in-store displays. This vertically-integrated model means that the retailer remains nimble within the market, ensuring greater control over production and supply. Fully 70 percent of the company’s assortment is currently its own private label offering, exclusive to Showcase and its customers.
One great example of the potential that’s inherent in the company’s mix of technological trendspotting and first-to-market production philosophy is its introduction of Hot Chocolate Bombs this past winter. Branded as Sweet Bombs, the product – a hollow chocolate ball with marshmallows and cocoa powder inside which, when put into a mug and hot milk is poured over it, turns into a tasty hot chocolate treat – was identified by the Showcase algorithms as going viral on October 10, 2020, moving its status from a niche item to that of an emerging trend. However, diagnosing the trend was the easy part. The challenge was in the fact that there was no inventory of this item in the market. Having amassed more than a billion views on social media, and without any chocolate manufacturers producing the treat, Showcase recognized the opportunity to produce their own, as well as a chance to stimulate and support local economies at the same time.
“Hot Chocolate Bombs provided us with an amazing opportunity to connect with our communities and engage local restaurants, bakers and caterers to partner and generate revenue during a very difficult time for businesses,” he asserts. “We recognized that they are the ones with the expertise, know-how and customer-base. And so, we provided them with the ingredients which included 30 tonnes of chocolate, the recipes and packaging. And together, as a collective community, we were able to produce the trending item. We put out a 1 million ball challenge to Canada and were able to have Hot Chocolate Bombs in stock at stores from coast-to-coast by Black Friday, selling millions of dollars worth of the product in just a few short weeks during the 2020 holiday season.”
Showcase’s recent successes, supported by the tremendous pivots that the company has made in the past year, are truly remarkable and lay the perfect platform for continued growth and expansion of the brand. And that’s exactly what Kulkarni says the company has planned. Through continuous streamlining and enhancement of its three-step trend system, which includes identification of the trend, introducing it to the market and bringing it to life in-store and online, Kulkarni believes that Showcase has the opportunity to expand its physical store network even further in the years to come.
“We are big believers in bricks-and-mortar,” he admits. “It’s the most visceral, personal experience that a retailer can provide for its customers. So, although we’re almost fully saturated in malls in English Canada, we’ll continue to open stores. There are still a handful of malls that we’d like to be in, which we’re working on now. But the major growth potential for us is in the US. Based on population, we should have ten-times as many stores in the US as we have here in Canada, equating to a 1,000-store potential. And even if we’re off by half, it still provides us with a lion’s share of the business. We opened ten stores in the US in 2019 just prior to the pandemic. Those stores are growing despite all of the recent challenges. As we complete that pilot, we’ll then turn our attention to an extensive rollout in the US market.”
To support this growth, however, Kulkarni says that the company won’t lose sight of its commitment to customers across the country, remaining focused on providing the Showcase community with a consistently exceptional experience, wherever they are. And, in today’s digital world, while impacts of the pandemic continue to persist, he recognizes the significance of an enhanced online presence in order to continue engaging with consumers, connecting them with the hottest trends on the market today.
“We want to be able to provide our customers with the most personalized and curated experiences possible. To help create those experiences online, we’re investing more into digital advertising on social media platforms. It’s providing us with a different means by which to get in front of our customers, offering them another channel through which they can engage with us. And, going beyond advertising, we’re also seeing a lot of opportunity in interactive video shopping. So, we’ve also been focused on creating video content and developing strategies to integrate e-commerce with video content in order to make that in-store Showcase experience available for our audience online. In the end, retail is all about offering interactivity and personalization for the customer on their journey to discovery. Our aim is to continuously enhance the experience we provide, wherever that discovery is taking place.”