HBC, Canadian Tire could be in trouble next during pandemic: retail expert

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TORONTO -- The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and Canadian Tire could be the next retailers to run into trouble during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to one expert who says the companies have failed to adapt to consumers’ evolving shopping habits even before the crisis began.

Retail expert and author Doug Stephens says department stores, in particular, have been under a lot of pressure since physical stores were forced to close during the lockdown period in the spring and consumer spending dramatically fell.

Stephens said HBC could be struggling to stay afloat and may have to permanently close some of its locations, as many other retailers have already done, because it has been slow to embrace online shopping.

“HBC has never really honed a great online game. So they’re not any match for Amazon in terms of their online presence and ability to serve consumers online,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

Stephens added that he thinks the iconic retailer has lacked a strategy in the digital retail space over the past five years. With more and more consumers resorting to online shopping as a result of the pandemic, the expert said HBC may have some catching up to do.

“I’d be very, very concerned about HBC in this environment,” he said.

In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, a spokesperson for HBC said the company has been working to manage through the financial impact of the pandemic and they’re confident the company will “emerge strongly” from the crisis.

“The company has been successful in building a strong e-commerce business, which is evident in digital growth achieved in every quarter for the past five years, tripling online sales during this time frame. In fact, thebay.com is ranked in the top 10 of most visited sites in Canada,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Most recently, Hudson's Bay re-platformed its e-commerce site to an industry-leading technology, with a fully redesigned customer journey including a live chat directly with customer service or an in-store associate.

The statement also says the Hudson's Bay app, which launched in July 2019, has nearly 400,000 downloads with a high “favourable rating score.” 

In addition to HBC, Stephens said he’s concerned about the future of Canadian Tire in these tumultuous times. The company recently reported a second-quarter loss that fell short of analysts’ expectations, which CEO Greg Hicks blamed on the pandemic.

Stephens said he’s worried about Canadian Tire because it still doesn’t offer home delivery for some of its products.

“It just seems ludicrous in this day and age, that I can’t go online and order from that retailer and have things delivered to my door,” he explained.

In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Canadian Tire disputed Stephens’ comments and said the “vast majority of our assortment is available for ship to home, as well as curbside or in-store pick up, enabling our customers to shop how they choose.

“In fact, in our most recent quarter ending in June, e-commerce sales were up over 500% at Canadian Tire, and our revenues from e-commerce in the quarter exceeded all of our online sales in 2019,” the company said. It also added that Canadian Tire’s retail division posted a 20 per cent increase in sales this past quarter, calling it “our best sales quarter in the history of our company.”

“We have been meeting the needs of our customers for nearly 100 years and are more confident than ever in our ability to continue to serve our customers in the future,” the company said.

In general, Stephens expects apparel retailers to continue to have a difficult time as a result of the shift to online purchasing.

“The nature of the category doesn’t lend itself currently very well to buying online because fitting is still an issue and the texture of garments and the feel of garments is also something that needs to be considered when buying,” he said.

As far as what the future holds for the wider retail landscape, Stephens said to keep an eye on what happens to those mid-tier regional malls across the country.

“There’s no way to candy coat it,” he said. “I think that we potentially are heading toward a commercial real estate crisis, particularly as it affects regional malls.”

Stephens said high-end luxury malls will likely weather the storm because they do well from a “productivity standpoint” and outlet and discount malls will always have a place in the market, especially when people are concerned about their employment and finances.