November 24, 2017

Large Japanese retailers gain ground in Vancouver

Muji readies to open second B.C. store; Miniso and Uniqlo also expanding in the province

Japanese household products store Muji is planning to open its Robson Street location on December 2 | Chung Chow

2017 in Metro Vancouver has been marked by the entry and proliferation of large Japanese retailers in the market – a trend set to continue December 2, when the household and consumer goods purveyor Muji opens its second store in the region, on Robson Street.

Muji opened its first Metro Vancouver store at Metropolis at Metrotown August 25, and it’s rumoured the company will open a third store in a shopping centre south of the Fraser River next year – possibly at CF Richmond Centre, where Cadillac Fairview senior vice-president and portfolio manager Tom Knoepfel confirmed that the company has been in “discussions” about opening a store.

“They’re in big-expansion mode, and Canada is on their hit list,” retail analyst and DIG360 principal David Gray told Business in Vancouver.

“For a lot of those big guys, when locating in Canada, it’s Toronto or Vancouver first. Locations are often determined by where the leases come up, and whatever space they can find that is suitable.”

Muji first opened a Canadian store in Toronto in late 2014, and the chain has since opened three more stores in the Greater Toronto Area.

Other major Japanese retailers new to the Vancouver market include Miniso and Uniqlo.

While variety store Miniso’s headquarters is in Guangzhou, China, the company touts its Japanese roots, being co-founded by Japanese designer Junya Miyake. Many of its products are also designed to look Japanese.

Miniso opened its first Metro Vancouver store, at 1256 West Broadway, in April, followed by a location in the Tsawwassen Mills outlet mall soon afterward. By the end of August it had also opened locations at 550 Granville Street; on Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus; and near Richmond’s Brighouse station.

Miniso’s vice-president of development, Yi Ma, told BIV earlier this year that he expects Metro Vancouver to have more than 15 Miniso stores by next August.

(Image: Miniso vice-president of development, Yi Ma, told Business in Vancouver earlier this year that he plans to have more than 15 stores in Metro Vancouver by next August | Rob Kruyt)

That includes stores open by the end of the year at Park Royal Shopping Centre, Guildford Town Centre, Sevenoaks Shopping Centre, Coquitlam Centre and Lynn Valley Centre.

B.C. has been the focus of Miniso’s Canadian expansion, although the chain also has three stores in Ontario, according to its website.

“Where Vancouver plays above its size is the fact that we do have a global-stage profile,” Gray said. “There’s a certain critical mass here, and other global retailers are already here. You could call it the ego effect. Global brands pick Vancouver because their peers that they’re fighting with, and want to be compared with, are here. They don’t want to be noticeably absent.”

Indeed, Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai told BIV earlier this year that he wanted his first Canadian store to be in Vancouver but he could not find appropriate real estate, so he opened first in Toronto.

Uniqlo is the third large Japanese retailer to open its doors in B.C. in the past year. It launched its first B.C. store at Metropolis at Metrotown in October before announcing that it would open a second B.C. store at Surrey’s Guildford Town Centre in spring 2018.

“Vancouver attracts a lot of Asian retailers because of its proximity to the Pacific Rim,” said Retail Insider Media owner and retail analyst Craig Patterson.

“Companies located on the Pacific Rim, because of the flight-time differential and because of brand awareness from people who are travelling, they’re going to look at Vancouver,” he said. 

Muji's opening on Robson Street will come a few weeks after the mid-November Cushman Wakefield study of retail streets around the world that found that Robson Street retail square footage had dropped in value, in US dollars, by more than 15%  compared with the same time last year. • 



Romanian chimney cakes and the Vancouver Christmas market

Transylvanian Traditions owner Tunde Tar recalls her grandmother’s stories

Chimney cakes being baked in a rotisserie oven | Photo: Tessa Vikander

When Tunde Tar was a child living in central Romania, she learned how to make chimney cakes from her grandmother. She remembers baking the sweet, tubular cakes over a wood-burning oven and rotating them by hand. When she ate them, it was a crumbly affair. 

“I was usually putting them on my arms (like bracelets) and eating like a kid, and I was all messy. This was a whole [lot of] fun for us, and we were rotating it by hand, and we didn't have these kind of machines,” she says, pointing to the specialized rotisserie oven behind her.

Today, Tar lives in Vancouver, and is the owner of the Davie Street Transylvanian Traditions Bakery, which is operating a lively booth at the Vancouver Christmas Market. Although principally German-themed, the food available at the fair includes food from other Eastern European countries.

The team at the Transylvanian Traditions hut works at a fast-pace. - Tessa Vikander

There’s a tale to these cakes, too. "My grandma used to say that when it was the war, and people didn't have anything to eat… the enemy tried to keep them hungry,” she says. With what little food they had, they would make dough and cook it on sticks. Once baked, the story goes that the embattled people would hold the sticks, covered in chimney cake, and wave them at their enemies.

“They were showing them that they still had something to eat and that they won't give up ever… but I don't know if it’s the truth, it's just my grandma's stories,” says Tar.

At the Christmas market, Tar and her fellow employees move about the hut quickly, rolling the lemon-flavoured yeast dough onto special wooden sticks and baking it on-site. But before the raw dough hits the rotisserie oven, it is rolled in coarse sugar.

Tunde Tar holds up a completed baked chimney cake. - Tessa Vikander

"As soon as the sugar is caramelized, the outside [of the chimney cake] is going to be crunchy and the inside is going to be nice and soft,” Tar explains.

Once baked, the cakes are slid off the sticks and rolled in ground walnuts or coconut, to be served piping hot in a white paper bag.

The verdict? Hot, steamy and lemony, these cakes would be easy to share, though you will probably want one all to yourself. Although they’re baked, and not fried, they give the good old North American doughnut a run for its money.

•The Vancouver Christmas Market runs from 11 a.m.  to 9 p.m. Nov. 22 through Dec. 24 at Jack Poole Plaza. Tickets $5-$10.



Ottawa’s housing strategy falls short in fight against homelessness

There is nothing so cruel in politics as a broken promise to the vulnerable.

In fixing things, politics can help people fix themselves. But a broken promise is further trauma, insult to injury for those too familiar with disappointment.

And when that broken promise was originally a false hope, then the public has every reason to lose faith in politicians and government.

Such is the case with our never-ending campaign on homelessness.

The promises about ending homelessness are nearly as harmful as the experiences of it, for they fake the capacity of public institutions to provide simple and short-term remedies to complex and long-term problems.

Last week the Trudeau government added its name to the list of offenders on the file in claiming, without more than just optimism, that its new housing strategy would cut in half the chronic homelessness in this country.

Its conceit is borrowed from the most corrosive page of the Vision Vancouver administration’s playbook, the often-cited 2008 pledge to eliminate homelessness (then modified to street homelessness) by 2015.

This kind of promise relieves the wider public of the need to examine the root causes of homelessness, reflect on the contributing systems and focus energy into the challenges of case-by-case remedies.

Instead: Poof! No need to fret any longer! The problem shall be solved!

It did not honour Justin Trudeau to immerse himself so last week, just as it has been a stain on our city to hear our administration make those claims for nearly a decade.

Under its watch, the numbers have only increased, 30% since 2014 alone. But rather than admit its promise was a vain and pretentious appeal to our innate feelings that it would be great were homelessness banished, it has simply blundered and blustered in digging the hole deeper each year.

Last week’s commitment further took credibility from Trudeau’s national housing strategy, but it wasn’t the only flaw in the overdue blueprint to resume after decades a fulsome federal presence in the housing sector.

There were many potentially innovative ingredients – a low-income renter subsidy of $2,500 a year, for instance, would be a side-door attempt at a guaranteed income supplement, but it is insufficient to the task in a city like ours. Ottawa’s intention to steadily if slowly supply low-income housing would – if done efficiently – help address an important element of the national challenge.

And we have to accept that the strategy is glacial in speed. You don’t take three decades off exercise and suddenly decide to run the marathon this afternoon.

But the principal thrust of the strategy – the big pouch of dough – is its principal flaw. It, too, was a sleight of hand in need of a magician’s assistant.

The supposed $40 billion initiative is really about half of that. The full amount depends on matching provincial investments, yet there is nothing approaching a pact.

It was a curious way to announce such a significant policy, in the absence of the partner necessary to make it happen, rather like the groom announcing he was marrying without a bride at the altar.

Most disappointing, though, was the absence of a discussion on the wider requirements of the housing sector and how the senior government wishes to help guide it.

There was nothing to suggest any support for a pressing need in this and other communities: housing for the elderly. There was little to indicate a vision for expanding the range of purpose-built rental housing, a critical need in this and many other cities. Nor was there attention on the so-called missing middle of our housing problems.

And when the City of Vancouver released its latest reset of policy on the same day, what it offered was more notional than practical: a target of building affordable rental housing units without any real plan to secure the land or furnish the significant subsidies necessary to make those units affordable. Experts dismissed it, and we will see soon enough if the public does, too.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.


Brexit withdrawal; interest rates up; more transatlantic business

Brexit: politics

The U.K. government has tabled a European Union (EU) Withdrawal Bill, which sets March 29, 2019, as the date for the U.K.’s departure, and aims to turn EU laws into U.K. laws. The aim: a smooth transition. But politically it is proving more challenging.

For example, the bill gives the government the right to make subsequent amendments without parliamentary scrutiny (some EU laws cannot be simply transferred). And the range of issues covered by EU law is enormous, around 80,000 items.

This has set the scene for charged debate, and while the bill has passed a first round, it has further to go before the final vote.

Brexit: negotiations

Meanwhile, U.K.-EU negotiations on the shape of Brexit itself continue, focusing on the rights of citizens, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the cost of the departure settlement. Progress will be reviewed at a December 14-15 leaders’ summit, when it will be decided whether to expand discussions to other issues, e.g., the trading relationship. The clock is running down quickly. The halfway point between referendum and departure date passed on November 10 (as of writing there are 500 days to go).

U.K. economy

The Bank of England made its first interest rate rise in 10 years, by 0.25% to 0.5%, with more expected to follow in 2018 (albeit to a cap of 1% by 2020). The move was made largely in an effort to manage inflation, which after a post-Brexit referendum rise has recently remained steady at 3%. Third-quarter GDP growth was 0.4%. Although the U.K. economy has performed better than expected since the referendum, the U.K.’s Office for Budget Responsibility predicts growth might slow through 2017 and 2018 with ongoing uncertainty and pauses in investment decisions.

Transatlantic business

Air miles were stacked up through the fall, with business travel in both directions across the Atlantic. B.C. companies attended a range of major shows in Europe, including Defence and Security Equipment International in London, European Utility Week in Amsterdam, Anuga (for agri-food) in Cologne and, in life sciences, Bio-Europe in Berlin and Medica in Duesseldorf. In the other direction, 10 London-based software and gaming companies visited Vancouver (and Seattle) as part of the London Mayor’s International Business Programme (MIBP). MIBP is an international growth accelerator for top high-growth U.K. startups. Companies are selected based on market traction and interest in future expansion. More is to come before Christmas, with Invest in Canada and the Consider Canada City Alliance leading an investment mission to Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris. 

Rupert Potter is a U.K.-based writer, speaker and diplomat who has worked in Jordan, Bahrain, Sweden and Canada. His career has included work with the U.K. government. He currently runs an independent consultancy.