Holt Renfrew closure signals changing economic and cultural times, expert says

Monica Miles-Lipscombe learned some important life lessons at the Holt Renfrew on Jasper Avenue.

She arrived to work at the luxury retailer in the early 1970s as an 18-year-old woman. Her managers were “older, classy women” who had intricate knowledge of the beauty, fashion, and accessory items they sold.

“They’d show me how to recognize quality in a piece of clothing. Not just price, but quality of the cloth,” she told CBC’s Radio Active Tuesday.

“To this day, I can go shopping and scan and point something out and say, ‘Yep, that’s beautiful.’ And it will always be the higher end thing.”

Holt Renfrew announced on Tuesday it will close its Edmonton store, located in Manulife Place, in 2020. The company said it wants to shift its focus to larger stores in the country.

Its closure signals the change of both retail and cultural landscapes in downtown Edmonton.

For Miles-Lipscombe, the original store was like having a slice of New York City plopped in the middle of Jasper Avenue. The clientele was well-to-do, and the staff was gracious but never snooty.

“The assistant manager, his name was Mr. Prince. He was the loveliest of gentleman; he had the best posture I’ve ever seen,” she said.

“He’d wear a hat and he’d walk in every morning and say ‘Good morning, ladies.’ It reminded me of the old-fashioned stores in New York.”

The move is part of a strategy by the company to focus on larger-format stores. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

The store opened after the Second World War and the discovery of oil at Leduc No. 1. Edmonton, at the time, was booming.

“People with children would seriously dress up and go out for the night to one of the clubs where they would dine and dance. It was a dress-up experience and live music experience,” said Shirley Lowe, Edmonton’s former historian laureate.

“People in the ’50s and ’60s went nowhere without their hats, their gloves, their best. The whole casual thing didn’t exist.”

The Holt Renfrew on Jasper Avenue nestled up to the Henry Singer that was located next door, and other boutiques lined the main street, too.

But cultures, and economies, change. By the early 1980s, the price of oil had crashed and big department stores were moving into malls.

Holt Renfrew made the move, too, and settled in Manulife Place in 1983.

It managed to weather downturns that saw the demise of stores once considered staple department stores — like Woodward’s, Sears and Eaton’s.

But consumers of luxury goods are starting to change their habits too, said Heather Thompson, executive director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta.

“I think a lot of people are just stepping back from making those large purchases. Or they do a mix and match — they shop at Winners for a pair of shoes and go to Holt Renfrew to buy a Tory Burch bag,” Thompson said.

“I don’t think luxury goods are leaving the market. I just think people are being more choosy with whether they’re going to spend that money.”

With LRT construction and the Ice District still developing, the retail future of downtown is still unclear, she said.

“In my opinion, it’s not good news for downtown retailers,” Thompson said of the store’s announced closure.

“I think Holt Renfrew was still an anchor for the Edmontonian downtown shopper especially for the professional shopper who is working down there during the day. I definitely think it will be a hit for downtown retail… Until there’s something new that can replace this.”

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