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Retail Shift in Canada to Temporary Spaces: Interview with Gotstyle Founder Melissa Austria

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the retail landscape in Canada forever, with more consumers adopting online shopping and retailers transforming their businesses to adapt to the changing realities.

One of those changing realities in the future could very well be the increasing use of pop up concepts by retailers who don’t want to be locked into a fixed space for a long term.

Melissa Austria, who founded clothing retailer Gotstyle in 2005, has learned to adapt in these changing times by initiating virtual shopping experiences for consumers.

When asked if she foresees expansion in the future into more brick and mortar stores from its current one location in Toronto, Austria replied that the pandemic has taught the industry that you can definitely grow without having to grow your physical footprint.

“And not have to deal with the issue of leases, more staff. It’s really kind of growing the brand digitally and I think that’s one thing all retailers learned and all businesses learned — doubling down on the digital aspect,” she said.

“I would definitely do pop up shops for sure. I would do a pop up shop in a heartbeat. And God knows there’s a ton of space to do pop up shops in the city right now unfortunately, but I don’t think I would ever sign a long lease again. You just don’t need to really.”

“Even if we wanted to do something across Canada or the U.S. I would still just do a pop up shop because once you build a community in those areas you’re kind of forcing them to act so there’s that (thought) oh they’re only here for three weeks so I’ve got to go check them out. I think it’s a better way of doing business going forward.”

Melissa Austria inside the Gotstyle retail location in Toronto’s Distillery District. Photo: Dustin Fuhs

The clothing retailer has a 7,000-square-foot-store in the historic Distillery District in Toronto. The company closed its other Toronto store two weeks before the first lockdown as its lease was up and the landlord wanted to substantially increase the retailer’s rent. Austria did not want to renew and two weeks later the lockdown took place.

“It was a blessing in disguise because that would have been a nightmare,” said Austria.

“We are a lifestyle-based brand, started up for men. For the first 10 years we were menswear but we moved to the Distillery location because of the size and because of the nature of the traffic here, we added in womenswear. We are definitely based on outfits for men and for women as opposed to single items,” said Austria.

“So we’re really more about building your lifestyle, building your whole wardrobe, and helping men, and now women, do that. Very much on stylist based. Having your own stylist, customer service. That sort of mindset.

“We were definitely very big on digital and social media at a very early start. We tried to launch virtual shopping (we called it Skype shopping)eight years ago. We even did an award winning “naked man commercial” for it, but it didn’t take off because people weren’t comfortable with show their face on a call back then. We’ve relaunched it again during COVID, and with people so used to being on video calls now, it’s picking up traction.”

The retailer has also launched its Trust Us Clothing Kit where after a virtual consultation to find out what customers are interested in some outfits are sent to their homes or offices to try on. Whatever they don’t like, the retailer picks up the next day.

While the clothing industry has had to adapt and adopt virtual initiatives, Austria said there’s nothing that really replaces the touch and feel of retail that many consumers still love. And pop ups indeed may be the way of the future for many retailers.

“I think that pop up stores will take on a greater role in the future, whether physical or virtual,” said Bruce Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and President of Bruce Winder Retail. “As more of retail migrates to e-commerce, more digitally native brands will experiment with physical pop up stores to test brick and mortar concepts.

“Pop up will make a lot of sense once the pandemic wanes as fewer retail stores will exist and could be a bridge to help retailers find the new normal in terms of optimal store count. Pop up stores, particularly outdoor pop up stores (weather permitting) will provide greater comfort to post pandemic germ-sensitive customers. Pop ups offer greater financial flexibility — a key ingredient for successful retailers in the future.

“Existing online powerhouses such as Amazon could leverage virtual pop up sites for special events such as Prime Day to further connect with core customers. Virtual pop ups differentiate retailers and create excitement and a sense of urgency for consumers. Operating at a fraction of the cost of physical pop ups, virtual versions offer even more opportunity to economically test new brands and events.”

Pop up retail stores and restaurants are helping proactive and creative landlords and building owners in Canada to keep their storefronts activated and incubate new long-term tenants, said Michael Kehoe, Broker/Owner of Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary.

“Pop ups have certainly enabled the enclosed malls to maintain a sense of vibrancy and stabilize vacancy levels that were on the rise as the pandemic accelerated over the past year,” he said. “These times are providing opportunities for retailers and foodservice professionals to test-drive new product and menu offerings on a short-term basis in a low risk ‘pop up’ commercial environment.

“Small business retail and foodservice entrepreneurs are popping up on main streets, in malls and in farmers markets sometimes for a few hours or a few months allowing them to sell directly to consumers and to launch new retail offerings and test new concepts. In Canada, 2021 is the year of the pop up.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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