How Canadian Tire is leading the retail pack

In 1922, brothers John William (J.W.) and Alfred Jackson (A.J.) Billes purchased the Hamilton Tire and Garage Ltd. in Toronto’s Riverdale neighborhood for $1,800. With Canada’s automotive market booming, the Billes Brothers were looking to get in on the action, eventually calling their company Canadian Tire Corporation because the name “sounded big.”

Initially offering one-year guarantees on tires in a time when blowouts were common, the Canadian Tire name started to grow in the stature they envisioned. You can fast-forward the company’s steady and ominous rise to include going public in 1944, expanding beyond automotive parts into camping and outdoor leisure items, ownership disputes and myriad subsidiaries that define the extensive reach it has today.

Today, the Canadian Tire family of companies operates some 1,700 retail locations, including its namesake banner Canadian Tire Retail (CTR), which features Living, Fixing, Playing, Automotive and Seasonal divisions; PartSource, Roadside Assistance and Gas+, key elements of CTR’s automotive business. It also includes Mark’s/L’Équipeur, a leading source for casual and industrial wear; SportChek, Sports Experts, Hockey Experts, National Sports and Atmosphere, which offer the best activewear brands; Pro Hockey Life, a hockey specialty store catering to elite players; and Helly Hansen, a global sports and workwear brand. In 2019, CTC acquired Party City’s Canadian business, adding Canada’s No. 1 party supply and celebration destination to its growing retail roster.

We sat down with Deborah Delaney, AVP Design & Construction at Mark’s/SportChek, to get her insights into what to expect for the company—and industry—moving ahead.

Tell us about yourself.
As Associate Vice President of Design and Construction for Mark’s and Sport Chek, I am in charge of leading all design, construction and procurement for the largest sporting goods and work/casual apparel brands across Canada.

For the past 20 years, I have had the pleasure of working within the fast paced multi-faceted design, build and construction industry. I have been able to manage local,regional and international projects, successfully developing and contributing to a succession of more demanding positions.

Before finding my love of everything retail, I worked within a wide range of design disciplines, projects and roles around the world. I was able to work in places like Dubai, China and Europe. I have also been able to be a mentor to other women in the industry, serving as an advocate for our continued leadership development.

Today, I live in Calgary, Alberta, where volunteerism is a passion and right of passage for me. I stay involved in myriad fundraising and board participation, and support various military charities that help bring communities and people together.

How have you seen brands come together to share information and navigate the pandemic?
One of the silver linings of COVID has been the collaboration it has fostered, within the company and within the industry as a whole. I have had the opportunity to join my colleagues in design at a number of round-table Zoom meetings that included 70-plus major North American retail executives. The purpose of these calls is to share and exchange ideas as a collective with those experiencing the same retail challenges. From touchless technology to wayfinding and messaging, store preparations and best practices, we have developed a real sense of comradery as we navigate these challenging times in retail, together.

Give us a rundown of your market’s layout.
Across CTC, we operate approximately 1,700 retail locations. Of those, I oversee four banners—Mark’s, L’Equipeur (our Quebec/French Mark’s stores), SportChek and Atmosphere—which make up a total of nearly 600 stores in most provinces and territories. These banners are located in a variety of market types—from small rural locations, to sprawling suburban, to large, dense urban markets. These banners are also found in a variety of formats: from enclosed malls, to standalone stores, to power centers.

Is there a location that really shows how the brand interacts with the community and customers? One of your favorites?
In a little over a year, we have designed and launched new concepts for both SportChek and Mark’s banners, and much like with children, I can’t choose one over the other as my favorite.

The Mark’s store in Calgary, Alberta was special because we were able to partner with local clothing designers to offer their products as part of our curated product assortment. This was a really special initiative that spoke to our history (Mark’s originated in Calgary back in 1977) and showcased our strong integration within the Calgary community. We changed the entire in-store experience from being a self-service model to a full-service retailer; we changed our assortment and curated it to speak to a specific audience; we changed the entire look and feel of the store and how we visually spoke to the customer through graphics and signage—we literally changed everything.

The SportChek store in St Catherines, Ontario is one that stands out to me. This store was designed with a simplified, elevated shopping experience in mind, with a focus on the female shopper. We made the store brighter, allowing the product to be the highlight which creates opportunities throughout the store for creative merchandising and storytelling. The overall fitting room experience was elevated through lighting, mirrors, customer call buttons and an aesthetically pleasing seating area.

The store was designed around a central community hub highlighting a locally commissioned piece of art. This hub is where customers can easily access the BOPIS (Buy Online Pick Up in Store) lockers which became a beautiful central eye-catching focal point. This is also the first store where we showcased our service shop like never before, by introducing “Retail Theatre” where customers can see through the glass walls and watch technicians fix bikes, sharpen skates, etc.

In the face of adversity, there is always opportunity. As we navigate through everchanging consumer behaviors, we are constantly learning and growing to become better.

Take us through your approach to executing your construction and design strategy
With design being the creator and construction being the builder, they are closely integrated processes within our team and the company as a whole.

We begin by working to ensure our design supports and aligns to the banner value proposition and desired target customer experience. Although each store falls under the same family of companies, the experiences for each one is very different. It is essential that we facilitate a seamless experience across banners and channels, while addressing retail trends and a constantly evolving customer mindset. Our design must support modular implementation and have maximum flexibility to enable constant change. And, we need to ensure our design is economically viable in all applications and types of retail environments, including malls, power centers, stand-alone stores and strip malls.

The build and construction of the store network encompasses varying types of projects. From new store builds, relocations, expansions, turn-key, shell and store revitalization. Our overall strategy is to align our networks so the customer experience is the same across the country.

Tell me about some of the challenges you face regarding construction in particular?
One of the primary challenges we are currently facing during the pandemic is in managing the stop/start nature of changing restrictions from a cost, planning and delivery perspective. We are also feeling the brunt of inventory and material delays due to challenges being experienced throughout the supply chains. Lastly, the inability to travel has been a significant challenge in trying to oversee projects that are underway.

We are continuing to look for opportunities to improve and evaluate how we design; construct and even how we work. COVID-19 has and will continue to change the way we go about our lives.

Talk about sustainability. What are you doing?
CTC is committed to operating as a sustainable Canadian brand. We recognize that climate change poses a serious risk to the health of our planet and, as a company, we have made it a top priority to be more energy efficient, use fewer resources, produce less waste, and provide our customers with more options to reduce their own impact on the environment. As a company, we aim to continuously improve the energy efficiency of our buildings by incorporating innovative technologies into our store prototypes.

Since 2003, we have continuously worked to improve our store design by making it more energy and water efficient, to the extent that we have reduced the energy use intensity of new stores by half. We have introduced features such as low-flow faucets and energy recovery ventilation, which have become standard in all new projects. Existing stores’ performance is improved by large scale retrofit programs where, for example, stores receive the latest lighting technology. In this way, we keep evolving our stores for optimized environmental performance. For example, emissions from our SportChek stores decreased 9% year-over-year in 2019.

What trends are you seeing and what opportunities do you see ahead?
We are continuing to look for opportunities to improve and evaluate how we design; construct and even how we work. COVID-19 has and will continue to change the way we go about our lives. As we are continually learning about this, we are seeing new trends around health, safety and cleanliness. These are now at the forefront of everything we do moving forward to keep our customers and our employees safe.

There is a new expectation from customers around seamless integration of online channels and technology. In-store technology that explains products by scanning QR codes, screens and AR will become standard in many customer interactions.

With customer behaviors shifting, stores need to have the flexibility to adapt and support change through fixtures, visuals and/or audio messaging. Stores are also becoming micro—distribution hubs to accommodate the online and in store pickup demand.

We are noticing the use of Antimicrobial Materials. These are being used on high touch and transmission surfaces. More retailers are looking at incorporating materials that are both functional, practical and esthetically pleasing.

In the face of adversity, there is always opportunity. As we navigate through everchanging consumer behaviors, we are constantly learning and growing to become better. It’s important that we continuously evaluate our internal processes and adapt to new technologies that will improve our customer journey. I always say it’s important to identify our strengths, but it’s just as important to know our weaknesses.

What’s the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
One of my main priorities is ensuring that my team is engaged, motivated and healthy, all while identifying opportunities to come out of this pandemic stronger than before. As a leader, I want to ensure that my team not only has the resources and tools they need to continue to perform at their job, but that they feel supported emotionally on a day-to-day basis.

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Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at mikep@ccr-mag.com.

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One-on-One with…
Deborah Delaney, AVP Design & Construction at Mark’s/SportChek

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The opportunity to hire and mentor an all-female management team in an industry that is historically predominantly male. We are a niche team within the Canadian Tire family of companies and act as a bifurcated group supporting both the Mark’s and SportChek banners. Seeing each project from beginning to end, with oversight of everything from planning to design, construction, fixture procurement and development, gives me and the team a strong sense of collective accomplishment.

What was the best advice you ever received?
That it’s essential to create and foster a learning culture within your team.

What’s the best thing a client ever said to you?
The best thing a client ever said to me is that I have never under promised or under delivered.

Name the three strongest traits any leader should have and why.
Integrity: a gateway for trust, loyalty and openness.
Self-awareness: understanding the characteristics and perspective of servant leadership.
Ability to successfully create a learning culture: it’s important to understand our weaknesses and grow.

How do you like to spend your down time?
COVID-19 has taught me that I don’t need to get on a plane and “get away from it all” to find peace. It has taught me to find balance in my daily schedule and enjoy every day simple pleasures in my own backyard.

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