Canadian Tire -- Auto Response

The 83-year-old Toronto-based retailing giant carved out its traditional niche by cramming as many tools, auto parts and sporting goods as possible into the narrow aisles of its more than 450 stores across the Great White North, taking full advantage of the high ceilings of its one-story outlets.

But earlier this year, it christened a four-story location on trendy Cambie Street in Vancouver that could very well have been designed by domestic guru Martha Stewart, and is unlike any other of its stores (which were more likely inspired by another Stewart -- legendary race car driver Jackie).

The opening marks an evolution of its two-year-old, to-the-point concept called Concept 20/20, so named because it calls for stores to decrease their warehouse space by 20 percent while increasing the retail area by the same amount. The Cambie store features hardwood floors, wider aisles, brighter lights, more product on the floor and more touch and feel displays. The new brand is not exactly oozing machismo, admits Lisa Gibson, manager of media and public relations for Canadian Tire Corp., Ltd.

"It's focused on the female customer. It's an innovative design approach. Customers were telling us, especially female customers with children, that they needed the aisles to be wider. It's about making the shopping experience easier for them. The Cambie store is taking it to another level," she says.

Consider, for example, the kitchen department. It's divided into two sections -- cooking and dining -- with all pots and pans and small appliances on one side and dishware, napkins, tablecloths and cutlery on the other.

Gibson says it's increasingly important to have kettles, toasters, blenders, coffee makers and microwaves on display because customers are choosing small appliances that fit into the look and feel of their kitchen. "[Appliances] are not being kept in the back of the cupboard anymore," she says.

The Cambie location also features a fully-furnished bathroom -- minus the plumbing -- showcasing faucets, shower curtains, toothbrush holders and the like to help shoppers visualize how each purchase will look at home. All the accessories are on nearby shelves as Canadian Tire attempts to display items that correspond with customers' shopping patterns. "Now it's easier to coordinate things. You're not going back and forth to aisles that are in opposite ends of the store," she says.

Gibson says Canadian Tire hasn't chosen to target women in 2005 to make up for decades of catering to their husbands and young children. Instead, there's a purely economic rationale for the decision. Its focus groups told the company about half of its customers were women but that they were only contributing about 35 percent to company tills. "There was more opportunity for us with women. Research shows women either make or influence about 85 percent of purchasing decisions in Canadian households," she says.

Gibson is quick to note that its new concept hasn't forgotten what made the company so successful in the first place. Concept 20/20 also features an expanded automotive section to appeal to people who personalize their cars with seat and license plate covers. There's also a larger tire wall with more national brands than before.

Not far away are marine and power sport products, such as canoes, kayaks, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. And, of course, it wouldn't be a Canadian Tire without sporting goods. "Our new store has the largest selection of hockey skates in the chain," says Gibson.

There are also several sections that will appeal almost equally to both sexes, such as footwear and apparel, Gibson notes.

Canadian Tire began branching out from its traditional model two years ago when it launched its wedding registry, turf traditionally dominated by department stores such as the Bay and specialty shops. Gibson says it targets couples who have similar interests or hobbies but who are having difficulty finding products geared towards their lifestyle at other retailers.

She says the Vancouver store is the most female-focused in the chain's history. The company plans to roll out 175 more Concept 20/20 stores in the next five years, with the amount of focus on women varying depending on the particular market, she says.

"We've been looking at this for a couple of years. With our new Cambie store and the launch of Debbie Travis-branded products, we've been focused more than ever on the female customer," she says.

Canadian Tire recently partnered with Travis, the star of the home-decorating television show, Painted House (essentially the female version of American television host Bob Vila). It has already launched Debbie Travis-branded ready-to-assemble furniture and paints and by next spring, a full line of her products, including furniture, will adorn Canadian Tire's shelves. "She's a Canadian design icon," Gibson says.

Charlie Finnbogason, managing partner of Franklin Retail Advisors, a Winnipeg-based consulting firm, says Canadian Tire is reinventing itself before it has to. Even the half of the store that's still targeting men has evolved. Five years ago, much of its product mix was dominated by mufflers, shock absorbers, tires and anti-freeze. Many of those products have since been largely de-emphasized.

"If you consider the kinds of cars we drive these days, when they need to be fixed, you take it to the dealer, they plug it in (to a computer) and it diagnoses itself. With fewer people doing their own car repairs, you better have something else for them to buy," he says, noting the cost of attracting a new customer is ten times higher than keeping an existing one.

By pursuing the female demographic, Finnbogason says Canadian Tire is changing before the public's opinion of the store becomes so ingrained that it becomes nearly impossible to change.

"It's like an actor being typecast -- they can't get other parts. The customer is evolving and it appears [Canadian Tire] is trying to evolve in time with them," he says.

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