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Canadian Tire embraces startup culture at Waterloo’s Communitech Hub

Communitech Hub
Given its old-world savvy, and the success of its famous loyalty program, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Canadian Tire has become ensconced in Waterloo, Ontario’s Communitech Hub since January, dedicating itself to launching a “digital hub” in April.

As new businesses struggle to create loyalty programs as a way of hanging on to customers, they can only hope to match the effectiveness of the oldest, most beloved of these: Canadian Tire money.

Given its old-world savvy, then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this decidedly 20th century retailer has been ensconced in Waterloo, Ontario’s Communitech Hub since January, dedicating itself to launching a “digital hub” in April.

The Communitech Hub is better known as an incubator for start-ups and the development of tiny seedlings of mere ideas into BlackBerry-sized enterprises, so the presence of Canadian Tire seems a refreshing surprise.

But Canadian Tire is already a major player in digital retail. Its website had over 100 million visits in 2012. It’s also the owner of a popular app and e-flyer that attracts over 20 million views. Its new digital hub will combine these with Canadian Tire’s already robust social media feeds, and add to the mix with the addition of magazine-style content and features on life in Canada, what advertisers refer to as insight marketing. “This is about acting like a startup, and what better way than to be rubbing shoulders with startups?” asks chief technology officer Eugene Roman, who was previously with Open Text.

Canadian Tire’s staff at Communitech Hub consists of five employees, with the possibility of co-op students being added as demanded by specific projects. Roman enthused, “This is like a Disneyland for new ideas. We could never build this on our own.” In May and June, the retailer will roll out over 5,000 tablets for in-store browsing.

As forward thinking as Canadian Tire’s Communitech Hub residency seems, the retailer does face challenges on that front. It still relies on eyeballs for verifying inventory, and it doesn’t yet track its customers’ behaviour in a way that other larger retailers are beginning to.

At the same time as its presence at Communitech Hub is meant to enhance its own digital profile, part of the strategy lies in the opportunity to mingle with up-and-coming start-ups. “There’s no better place to be able to go for lunch or walk over to the coffee pot and meet a startup that is doing something that might be able to help us,” said Craig Haney, manager of Canadian Tire innovations and one of the Waterloo team members.

At a time when obituaries are being written for brick-and-mortar stores, Canadian Tire is putting its mouth where its Canadian Tire money is and behaving like a start-up.

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