Despite some recent and current challenges for retailers in downtown Edmonton, entrepreneur Chad Helm is bullish about the future and in the process of building a new flagship store for The Helm menswear store.
The new store currently under construction, which will likely open in April, will more than double the size of its original existing store to 8,200 square feet on three levels in the newly-developed ICE District on 102nd Avenue and 103rd Street.
The move shows confidence in the heart of the capital city that has seen high-profile retailers such as Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew exit the core in recent years.
“The deal with us is we’ve invested in the downtown core now for a decade. This was a serious conversation I was having with staff and family. Do we continue to pursue the downtown image, the downtown store, everything we’ve sort of worked towards? Or do we shift a little and move the store to a handful of other places that are still central and easily accessible to your customer and not downtown?,” said Helm.
That was a conversation that went on for a while. Ultimately it chose to remain downtown because it’s where they built their clientele. There’s no doubt that times have been bad for Edmonton’s downtown core even before COVID with the decline in oil prices. That has shuttered a bit the vibrancy of the core. The path for the future became clear. Will we continue to see the downtown core suffer or is it going to rebound?
“I do believe it’s going to rebound and the investment in the downtown core for us was important because it’s people like us that facilitate that rebound. If we all turn our backs and say we’re never going to occupy an office tower again or no retail doesn’t work downtown, that creates a pretty negative environment. I don’t believe that is dead.”
The former Hudson’s Bay site is going to be redeveloped and it’s located kitty corner to The Helm’s new store.
“I think long-term the outlook is actually quite positive the way that the city is shaping up downtown. Yes, at the current moment it does feel a little bit like we’re taking a risk but as I zoom out on the lens I don’t have the same jitters. I feel the downtown core should come around. It’s just gone through a moment. This has happened many times in the past.”
Helm opened his first store in the summer of 2012 on 104th Street in downtown Edmonton.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from the city but it was a steep learning curve for the first three years or so. But we’re proud to say that we’re closing in on 10 years in business,” he said.
“It was and still is a cool street, multiple street front shops. Good vibe anywhere from bars to retail to coffee shops down here. We felt it was important to be part of a greater community versus just being in an area surrounded by similar types of retail.”
The initial store is 3,000 square feet. Everything was run out of that space. The website, social media, all the goods sold out of the space, some back office use.
“It was sort of a mom and pop setup for the first five, six years. But since then we’ve grown. Not only our sales team and assortment has grown but also our marketing and communications team and our need for just more space overall. Our tailor shop. Hence the move into a new bright, shiny location.
“At the time, the store was I guess you could say traditional. We had 40 to 50 per cent of our inventory in tailored clothing and sportcoats and suits and dress shoes. Shirts and ties. We’ve adjusted our perspective into something that’s a little bit more progressive and more lifestyle focused versus just business.
“As a business we’ve been focused on, I hate the word luxury but it’s kind of the easiest word to use because it easily identifies us to the consumer. We are a luxury men’s clothing retailer and we’ve been chipping away at this slowly and it’s evolved into quite a thing at this point.”
Helm said the new store will be a very open and contemporary design, adding that it’s very similar to places a shopper would see in Midtown New York or Milan, Italy.
The main floor has a 2,600-square-foot open floor plan, another 1,400-square-foot mezzanine and then another 3,300 square feet on the top floor.
“It’s got a massive opening that spans the entire front of the store. As you walk in, you’ll look up and you’ll see nothing but 35-foot ceilings and tons of windows,” said Helm.
At last, some good news for downtown retailing in Edmonton, especially after the departures of Holt Renfrew and Hudson’s Bay. The decision to open at this location is a remarkable vote of confidence in a part of the city that has seen some hard blows. For an upmarket retailer that doesn’t want to be sucked into the gigantic commercial vortex that is the West Edmonton Mall, and is specifically looking for a central city site, conventional wisdom would designate the only remaining viable option as Old Strathcona somewhere along Whyte (82nd) Avenue. If Chad Helm doesn’t have the support of Edmonton’s chamber of commerce or the developers of the Ice District, he ought to. Good luck to him.