The Retail Race
Designing and building large department stores presents a series of contrasts—they can be fairly straightforward in concept, yet ever-shifting as the project moves forward. Clearly segmented into departments, but under one comprehensive roof. In other words, these types of retail projects have their own unique quirks that require a certain level of experience and skill to manage together with the owner, the design team, and the various vendors who become part of the team as the store approaches opening day.
Govan Brown is one of Canada’s leading retail contractors and has amassed that very kind of expertise. Construction in the retail sector, as they have learned, takes a slightly different approach than, say, fitting out a corporate office.
STRAIGHTFORWARD DESIGN BUT… DEADLINE DRIVEN
First, there are a lot of moving parts to manage, which is particularly tricky with the fixed schedule of most retail projects. Once opening day has been determined, there is no going back, no matter how many changes or challenges pop up.
The stores usually advertise opening day, so that date is not moving”, says Govan Brown project manager Eric Brown. “And really our deadline is about a month before that so the store can bring in the merchandising team, train employees, etc. we have to tackle any issues immediately so they don’t snowball.”
GLOBAL STANDARDS BUT… DIFFERENT CODES
Since most department stores are chains, they have a fairly consistent approach—and even project team—for developing and renovating their stores. Nordstrom, for instance, works with the same architects and engineers for nearly all of their stores, along with local general contractors.
However, those standards sometimes require adjustments as they open stores in different countries. As a US-based company, Nordstrom’s vendors’ designs didn’t always conform to Canadian codes and standards as the team began working on its new Toronto store.
“Luckily their team knows their program inside and out, so it was easy to work with them to translate that to Canadian standards,” says Brown.
Similarly, when Holt Renfrew began work on their Toronto store, the London-based café designer specified a number of materials from out of the country, some of which were not certified for use in Canada.
“We sat down with the architects and did an extensive study on the alternatives we could use from Canada,” says Hany Younan, senior project manager at Govan Brown. “We were able to switch out many of them to match the expectations but keep on schedule.”
ONE UNITED STORE BUT.. SEPERATE DEPARTMENTS
Large retail stores have several departments—each with different needs. Whether it’s menswear, women’s, shoes, or others, each department typically has a different style and aesthetic.
Simons, for example, designs each department with an entirely different theme and, therefore, treats each like its own separate project.
“We actually tendered them separately,” says Younan. “But since there could be potential issues where two departments come together, we made sure all the packages aligned with each other ahead of time.”
Within those departments, some stores have specific name-brand vendors who may also have their own needs and approaches to the work. Often the store will give the vendors the raw space and they will bring in their own team to fit it out. For others, Govan Brown manages as many of them as possible to keep the schedule on track, sometimes taking a quasi-design-build approach.
“At Nordstrom, we assigned small teams to focus on the schedule and work with the vendor clients,” says Brown. “For a large package with many different materials, we sometimes end up with five or six different millworkers and packages. So it’s important to coordinate and keep tabs on all of those projects within the project.”
Despite the hustle and coordination, reaching opening day is incredibly rewarding, says the Govan Brown team.
“Working with the designers from preconstruction through construction and seeing that concept come to fruition is so gratifying,” says Younan. “Sometimes our clients invite us to cut the ribbon with them, which really makes us feel like we’re part of their family.”