Holt Renfrew CEO sets sights on future of Canadian luxury retailer

Sebastian Picardo, president and CEO of Holt Renfrew, shares his vision for the 187-year-old company.

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When Sebastian Picardo joined Holt Renfrew in 2020, the first thing he did was talk to people.

“One of the things that I noticed after discussions with different journalists, brand partners, our customers, our teams, our landlords, our shareholders, one of the key take-aways was that Holt Renfrew, at the time, was perceived as a little bit intimidating,” Picardo says. “And a little elitist.”

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The seasoned retail executive — Picardo’s previous outposts included deputy president of the Hong Kong-headquartered luxury retailer Lane Crawford — saw an opportunity to shift that perception in his new role as president and CEO of the 187-year-old Canadian company.

“I really saw an opportunity … to actually communicate exactly who we are and what we stand for,” Picardo says. “Because the reality is that we have a product offering that caters to lots of different people. We have a team that is warm and is willing to welcome new customers.”

Speaking from a private shopping suite at Holt Renfrew Vancouver, Picardo looked every bit the new breed of cool luxury CEO. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, with a denim jacket from the Spanish fashion brand LOEWE, Picardo explained how his team is working to change the perception of the luxury multi-brand retailer.

Holt Renfrew in Vancouver.
Holt Renfrew in Vancouver. Holt Renfrew

“We have experiences, and services and events that are catered to a lot of people,” Picardo explains. “I think the big opportunity for us, and one of the key areas of focus in the last few years, has been for us to better communicate who we are and what we stand for.”

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Picardo summarizes the retailer’s mission as being “to empower self-expression and ignite positive change” through its four brand pillars: magenta (it’s long-standing hue), Canadian, personal service, and sustainability.

Changes include introducing more ‘entry-priced’ products from brands such as SKIMS, Cult Gaia, and Birkenstock, as well as Canadian brands such as A Bronze Age and other “unique at Holts” offerings.

The evolution of services beyond straightforward selling in the retailer’s stores has been further emphasized, according to Picardo, including facials, made-to-measure fashion, brand trunk shows, personal styling and even lunch reservations.

Personal shopping, the process of sales associates providing comprehensive shopping service to clients, is a major pillar for the company, according to Picardo.

“The big thing here is relationships,” he says of the one-to-one service. “When we look at personal shopping, that team is so successful because they really know our consumer. They have the time and bandwidth and the tools and the space to be able to provide that relationship. And it goes beyond just shopping for the next season.”

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With the departure of American retailer Nordstrom from Canada last year casting a light on the challenges of the Canadian retail market, Picardo says Holt Renfrew “has no plans” to shutter any existing stores.

“The in-store experience is essential. What we realize is there’s a magical relationship between digital and physical. What we see is digital is really integral in communications … But then the physical experience is where a lot of that connectivity with the consumer comes to life,” Picardo says. “And where people can really experience what Holt Renfrew is, what we stand for, what the products are, experience the products, experience the services, experience events.

“So, for us, the in-store experience will be extremely important for us moving forward.”

In markets where it once operated stores such as Edmonton, Ottawa and Quebec City (where Holt Renfrew was founded in 1837), the company has been experimenting with “popouts” — temporary shops that last a few days and offer a “selection of products,” including from luxury brand vendors to luxury shoppers in the city.

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“It’s been a huge success,” Picardo says.

While still “new” to Canada himself, Picardo has become immersed in the country’s retail scene; familiarizing himself with the various stress points such as population placement and online competition that exert a unique pressure on businesses in Canada.

“Some of these changes in the market reflect the fact that Canada is a very competitive and a very challenging market to win,” Picardo says. “That’s … one of the key take-aways from some of the market changes that we’ve seen.”

Noting the Canadian luxury retail market has “a lot of potential, long-term,” thanks to a growing population through immigration and a post-COVID-19 uptick in the growth of the luxury sector, Picardo is optimistic about the luxury retailer’s future.  

“It’s a brand that has been around for a very long time. Our ownership has very long-term interests at heart,” Picardo says. “We want Canadians to be proud of Holt Renfrew.

“So we’re going to work very hard to deliver on that.” 

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