Typically, when you hear that a fusty old chain store is getting a makeover or is refreshing its brand, it’s the last, embarrassing gasp before an old, hopelessly out-of-it retailer disappears forever.
Tim Horton’s fans are likely bracing themselves on hearing that the chain is planning a refresh, to help them attract the elusive Millennial demographic. And with the looming extinction of Sears and Future Shop, along with Target’s failed attempt to turn old Zellers locations around, it’s been a rough couple of years for retail.
Last year, probably the only genuinely shocking new resident to move in to the Communitech Hub in Waterloo was Canadian Tire. The Communitech Hub is renowned for attracting the best and brightest of young, innovative high-tech entrepreneurs working at the bleeding edge of the future. Their idea of a legacy brand is Google.
The university’s co-op students, many of whom major in Mechatronics or Quantum Physics, weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to join Canadian Tire’s Communitech initiative. What a difference a year makes. “We’re now going from struggling to get enough applications in for our co-ops, to having hundreds of applications into our co-ops after only three terms,” Canadian Tire Innovations (CTi) manager Craig Haney told Communitech recently.
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On February 1, Canadian Tire’s Cloud Computing Centre went live on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. The $50 million, 28,000 square foot facility serves as the digital hub for Canadian Tire’s 1,700 locations across Canada, and will house an “App Factory” and a gamification lab. The Winnipeg facility counts among its 50 employees not only IT professionals, but also behavioural scientists.
It was said of Walt Disney, when Disneyland was built, that he studied where people walked and then adjusted pathways accordingly. The same study of consumer behaviour in brick-and-mortar environments is going on when you’ve got Big Data technicians working alongside behavioural scientists.
Last year, Canadian Tire’s chief technology officer Eugene Roman told the Wall Street Journal, “We believe if we change the shopping experience into an entertaining experience, an engaging experience, we will do better. It’s ‘shopper-tainment’. And I believe it’s the future of retail.”
If this sounds like a dying brand’s hopeless attempt at staying relevant, think again. Canadian Tire intends to export the innovative methods they’ve perfected at the Communitech Hub to their Winnipeg data centre. “If I put 35 cubicles in Winnipeg and told them to be innovative, they would bang their heads against the wall,” said Haney. “You need to have inspiring space. You need to have people who can embrace the complexity and ambiguity of innovation. You need projects that are inspiring and that people can get their heads wrapped around.”
You might not think that a brand as ubiquitous as Canadian Tire needs to struggle to keep up. After all, with 90% of Canadians living within 12 minutes of an outlet and 80% of the Canadian population shopping there at least once a year, why bother?
As Eugene Roman told the Winnipeg Free Press recently, “Three years ago we wondered what the cloud will look like. Well, the cloud has matured. There is no debate now. We know what it looks like and this centre is scalable in every way.”
As Canadian Tire ramps up its commitment to new technology and new ways of thinking about retail, we’re witnessing a qualitative shift that involves embracing the future without disowning the past.