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Entrepreneur Doug Putman Discusses Why He’s Focused on Brick-and-Mortar Retail: Interview

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Doug Putman is a serial entrepreneur with a strong belief in the potential of brick and mortar retail as the industry comes through the challenging economic times of the pandemic.

Recently, it was announced that Putman Investments, a Canadian-based, family-owned company, was buying the Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us Canada brands with 81 stores in the country and plans to expand that number.

In late 2020, Putman took over 45 shuttered DAVIDS Tea locations and transformed them into a new brand T.Kettle with the goal to expand the concept further in Canada.

Putman is best known for converting HMV music stores to Sunrise Records a few years ago. There are 82 stores in Canada.

Doug Putman (HMV)
Image: Doug Putman (HMV)

“Certainly we’ve got a lot of confidence in brick and mortar. We keep buying into it and we intend to buy more into it,” said the founder of Putman Investments. “Our belief is that people are always going to want to go somewhere and they’re always going to want to go and shop. The ability to touch and feel and interact is an important one. Ultimately online is great and it serves its purpose but the online will never fully replace that brick and mortar business.”

Putman is also owner of FYE (For Your Entertainment), Alex Brands, HMV Retail Ltd (UK), The Granite Restaurant (Bancroft, Ontario), Makin Waves Marine (Bancroft) and Everest Toys (Hamilton).

The key to brick and mortar success is offering customers a nice shopping experience. It’s the way to win people back to the physical stores.

“Of course, a bunch of this business has gone online but if you look at the businesses we own they have online components. It’s not like we’re not in the online business. We’re a brick and mortar retailer that has an online presence. So if business does shift online, that’s okay for us to pick up a good portion of it,” said Putman.

“We look at our brick and mortar stores as a competitive advantage. A lot of people laugh when I say no one’s ever going to be only ecomm and they say have you ever heard of Amazon. Well, if you start reading the articles, what’s Amazon doing. They’re going to start looking at opening department stores. They bought Whole Foods.

“So you can look at kind of the best retailer out there in Amazon and they’re not going to stay only ecommerce. I think we’re on the right track. I like where we’re going and as long as we keep offering a better experience in the stores that we have, we keep our in stocks well positioned, then I think we’ll just keep getting the customers naturally coming back.”

Putman said the retail industry is still not at full recovery as many customers may still be hesitant to visit a physical store due to health concerns about the ongoing pandemic. And it’s hard to really judge right now how much business has truly left brick and mortar to online and will never come back. The industry really doesn’t know what that number is yet.

Putman is very confident about the retail industry going forward. He said the Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us acquisitions won’t be the company’s last purchase. It’s still looking at other retailers to expand its portfolio.

“From our perspective we’re still in acquisition mode,” he said. “We clearly like retail. So we’re open to that. We’re looking for businesses that are interesting to us. The toy business was interesting. The tea business was interesting. We just enjoy business. For us we’re pretty open to just about anything. I think we are agnostic to what that category is that they sell.

T. Kettle at St. Laurent Shopping Centre (Photo by Dustin Fuhs)

“It just comes down to what is the opportunity. Obviously we’ve done well at turning some businesses around. That’s the nice thing. We can buy very strong healthy businesses but we’re also open to buying ones that are in a little bit of distress that need some help.”

T. Kettle has about 70 stores, up from the 45 locations it began with. Putman said throughout the pandemic there have been more vacancies for retail space, allowing that brand to grow across Canada.

When asked how many more stores that brand could grow to, he replied: “I don’t know. I think we’re getting close to where we feel good. When you look at Sunrise we’ve got just over 80, Toys ‘R’ Us is just over 80. It feels that seems to be the sweet spot for Canada when we look at it. There’s always the opportunity for a bit more for sure.’

Article Author

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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