Holt Renfrew Looks to Further Growth as it Sees Record-Breaking Year and Broadens Brand Assortment [CEO Sebastian Picardo Interview]


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When Sebastian Picardo took over as President and CEO of Holt Renfrew three and a half years ago, he wanted to know how people perceived the iconic Canadian retail brand.

He had many conversations with various stakeholders in the company.

“One of the things I learned was that Holt Renfrew at the time was perhaps perceived as being a little bit elitist and was for some people a little bit intimidating,” said Picardo in a recent interview with Retail Insider at the retailer’s downtown Calgary store. “And that to me indicated that we had a big opportunity to evolve and make changes. We could change the perception because the reality was in the cities, more today than then, is that we have a product curation that caters to a lot of people.

Holt Renfrew at The CORE in Calgary (Image: Mario Toneguzzi)

“We have products for women, for men, for the home, for kids. We have beauty and grooming. We have all these products. We are a lifestyle retailer if you will and of course we have a very significant product offer in the luxury segment but we also have products that are more affordable at entry prices.

“It’s just a question of people being aware that we have those things and when they come here, if they haven’t been here before, that they’re going to be welcomed, they are going to feel welcomed, and they’re going to be able to experience Holt Renfrew like anyone else.”

Picardo said the retailer’s services are also accessible to anyone like facials for example and personalized shopping and styling appointments. He said the brand started working really hard to ensure that it had products for a range of people.

“The key thing we worked on when it comes to product assortment and curation is to ensure that not only do we have different price points but also the products that are special. Our customers still want to find things that are special. Is it diverse? Is it sustainable? Is it new? Is it unique to Holt? What is special about it? Is there something special around the story of the brand, the story of the product? And then we work very hard to be able to communicate those things that make those products special.”

Holt Renfrew CEO Sebastian Picardo at Holt Renfrew Calgary (Image: Mario Toneguzzi)

Picardo said the company is doubling down on the Holt Renfrew brand and it is working on clearly communicating who it is and what it stands for. This has been a key to the brand’s evolution in the past few years.

“First of all we’re a brand that has been in Canada for over 186 years. At the heart of the brand we have four key pillars that makes us different and unique. We’re Canadian. We own the colour magenta. We’re very proud of that. You see it everywhere. You see the colour and you immediately associate it to Holt Renfrew.

“Another brand pillar is sustainability which is all the things we are doing around social and environmental aspects. For example, Holt Renfrew in 2021 became the first, and I believe still the only retailer in Canada, to have science-based targets across Scope 1, 2 and 3. So we are really, really committed to making a difference when it comes to environmental aspects and social aspects.

“And finally personal service. That’s another key pillar to our brand. So when I think about the future, those four pillars will continue to be shining through everything we do.”

Holt Renfrew at The CORE in Calgary (Image: Mario Toneguzzi)

Picardo said the company will be bringing forward more personalized services and experiences for its customers in the future. Holt Renfrew wants to take personal relationships to a new level and that will show up on a more one-on-one basis.

“The results of this evolution have been phenomenal,” he said. “First of all, since 2020 our market share has grown by 33 per cent. Our customer base has grown dramatically since 2019. We had record sales last year and we’re continuing to see growth in our customer base.

“Compared to 2019, (sales last year) were up 30 per cent. This year we’re tracking against our plans and we’re doing well even though it’s a very different market.”

Holt Renfrew currently operates seven stores in Canada. By the end of next year there will be six as the retailer’s standalone men’s store at 100 Bloor Street West in Toronto will be relocating back into the 50 Bloor Street West flagship store nearby where it had operated for years. The new men’s store will be located on the third floor of the larger Holts and will open towards the end of 2024. 

“We have been investing in renovations across the board,” said Picardo.

In recent years, it opened a store in downtown Montreal with a flagship Holt Renfrew Ogilvy store on Saint-Catherine St W. 

“We currently are very happy with the presence that we have across the country and what we’re looking to do is to actually continue to do an even better job within that footprint and that’s why this investment that we’re making in bringing everything to life in Bloor and if we are expanding we may be expanding with seven brands that need more space because we want to showcase additional new lines or additional products. But I think the idea is to continue to do that,” said Picardo. 

“We think we can continue to serve the key markets in Canada with our store footprint and then serve the rest of Canada where we don’t have a store with our online presence . . . The core markets too. We have a lot of customers shopping online in the markets we have shops as well.”

Holt Renfrew at The CORE in Calgary (Image: Mario Toneguzzi)

The company also has stores in Yorkdale, Square One, downtown Calgary at the CORE and at CF Pacific Centre in downtown Vancouver.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years is changes in the customer behaviour and also we see changes in the customer in general,” said Picardo. “The first thing I’ve seen when I arrived was that through an extremely successful immigration program that Canada has, the customer has been changing dramatically in Canada. We have a very diverse consumer. Some of them are new Canadians. Some of them have been here for a long time. And over the years there have been people immigrating to Canada. 

“The second thing I observed when I arrived there’s a much higher expectation, I think it’s a concern, around climate change and there’s also interest in ensuring that retailers have a role to play when it comes to social and environmental aspects that our communities care about.

“Thirdly, I think there’s a lot of competition. Canada is very competitive and it’s very challenging to win. And on top of it, if you add some of the customer behaviour in terms of what happened during the pandemic when people were not traveling, people were not going out for a meal, they were not socializing as much, and therefore we saw that a lot of discretionary spend grew and was in luxury goods. As the pandemic got to an end, we saw changes in behaviour. So people started traveling again, they started shopping abroad and also they started diverting spending to other areas like going out for meals and socializing.

“And more recently with inflation and also with interest rates going up, we’re seeing that the demand for other categories such as mortgage payments or other categories where prices are going up people need to divert their spending to that.”

Picardo said there are many different dynamics taking place in the retail sector today with both opportunities and challenges.

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 is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.


  1. Really, you’ve got to hand it to Holt Renfrew. Over the past decade the company has successfully defended itself against the arrival of foreign (i.e. American) competitors who threatened to chip away at it’s longtime dominance of the high end of the Canadian clothing and accessories market. As its would-be rivals collapsed (Nordstrom) or struggle (Saks 5th Avenue), they have apparently reached some kind of equanimity of coexistence with concessionaires who open their own standalone shops. Holt’s correctly decided it didn’t need to be in every major commercial centre: it’s a destination store so management would concentrate its investments strictly in key markets across the vastness of Canada.

    “We currently are very happy with the presence that we have across the country and what we’re looking to do is to actually continue to do an even better job within that footprint …”

    I guess that means that, for the time being, Holt’s has decided six grand stores are sufficient to maintain its pre-eminence continent-wide as Canada’s temple of style. So, no upcoming announcement of plans to establish a Maritimes redoubt in, say, Halifax should be expected. The company’s marketing has also successfully walked a line between seeming more approachable and accessible whilst maintaining that mystique of luxury and chic that burnishes the image. Mr. Picardo is earning his bonuses.

    P.S. Regarding those photo captions: “Holt Renfrew at CF Chinook Centre in Calgary” ?!

  2. If I can give them one piece of advice: the buying has to improve. There’s not enough variety for contemporary and it seems like they’re catering to the old money crowd these days. Not enough cool brands for young shoppers. We want less Theory, Frame and Mother Jeans and more brands you see on FWRD or Moda Operandi for example.

  3. Ask shareholders? Try asking your customers . I live 10 min away from a Holts and would rather purchase online to avoid going instore . Your salespeople are the problem . I used to take it personally but I hear it from my other colleagues. Another out of touch CEO , this has been the problem for the 30 yrs I have shopped there . Luckily we now have Canadian online retailers like SSENSE and Stores like Simons . Nothing will change unless you address your front line salespeople .


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