The Bay’s department store in downtown Vancouver is a shadow of its former self.
On a recent weekday visit, most of the elevators and escalators were out of service and arrows placed on the floor directed shoppers to a stairwell. The store was eerily quiet compared to the rest of Pacific Centre. There was no background music playing over the speakers, except in one corner of the sixth-floor menswear department.
In the basement, the exit to the SkyTrain was sealed. A sign revealed this was due to a door malfunction, but there was no indication if, or when, it would be repaired.
Sales staff were overheard telling bewildered customers the elevators have been out of service for a while and that they don’t know which lone escalator might be working on any given day.
Victoria resident Nick Alexander emerged from the store describing his experience as “just awful.”
“It’s just tanked,” he said, nothing there was only one working elevator and few staff. “I won’t be coming back.”
The state of the flagship store on Granville and West Georgia comes as the Hudson’s Bay Co. brand, which is Canada’s oldest retailer, had a bumpy ride last year, according to Vancouver-based retail analyst David Ian Gray.
“There’s no money for investment,” said Gray.
He’s not sure it’s true, but he’s heard industry chatter that some retail staff were resorting to bringing in their own portable speakers for music.
Hudson’s Bay Co. cut staff in January 2023, and then again in May 2023 for a total of about 500 employees across the country who were in corporate roles.
The company in late November said its president and CEO, Sophia Hwang-Judiesch, who had been in the seat since September 2022, was stepping down and that past president Liz Rodbell, who led the brand from 2013 to 2017, would be returning.
Around the same time, media reported Hudson’s Bay Co. completed real estate transactions in the U.S. and Canada that raised US$340 million in cash to fund retail operations after getting behind on payments to its suppliers.
The parent company HBC LP, which owns Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks OFF 5TH, said it was using cash from the sale of some properties to pay overdue invoices to vendors.
The company’s real estate portfolio has previously been estimated to be worth about US$7 billion.
“Repairs have all been planned and are expected to be underway this month,” spokesperson Tiffany Bourre said in a statement Wednesday about the Vancouver store.
“Any delayed payments are due to HBC managing through the challenging environment that is impacting the wider retail industry, particularly in Canada. Hudson’s Bay is committed to the Vancouver market and we are excited about what’s in store for 2024,” she added.
The downtown Vancouver store with its iconic, century-old heritage exterior, has been earmarked for redevelopment since HBC announced in 2022 a mixed-use project that would retain the outside of the heritage building and add a one million-square-foot, 12-storey glass office tower on top.
HBC executives from Toronto and New York unveiled the plans and unofficially estimated the redevelopment cost at CDN$700-million. The Bay had 500 employees and it was expected that 5,000 people would work in the offices.
At the time, executives declared that if the project proposal could sail through the City of Vancouver’s permitting process, redevelopment could start in early 2024. But there are no details on a marketing website about The Bay Building redevelopment.
The City of Vancouver has not received a rezoning application.
“HBC remains committed to the redevelopment of the Vancouver downtown store and we continue to engage in discussions with the city planning staff to move the project forward,” wrote Bourre in a statement.
The downtown Vancouver office vacancy rate has been at the highest in two decades, although numbers have recently decreased. In 2023, large pension funds listed their downtown Vancouver office buildings for sale as pressures increased to lighten the exposure to office space.
However, the office vacancy rate in downtown Vancouver is lower than seen in other Canadian cities, such as Calgary at 30 per cent and Toronto at 17.4 per cent.
Meanwhile, the gripes continue.
Paul Davis, who has been shopping at the store for 30 years, said he approached management about the state of disrepair of the elevators.
“You have a major department store…and you have signs telling customers to use your stairs. I can’t imagine Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s in the States doing this,” he said.
“When you look around at the way they’ve merchandised the store, it gives you the impression that they’re struggling. … This is supposed to be their flagship store.”
With files from John Mackie and Douglas Quan
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