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The Bay vs. Holts: the Bay’s scheme to steal the fashion crown from Holts

The sensible shoes and twin–sets are gone, replaced by stilettos and crystal-encrusted gowns. There’s valet parking and personal shoppers, and they’re serving champagne up on three. It’s all part of the Bay’s scheme to win the loyalty of society shopaholics—and steal the fashion crown from Holts

(Image: George Pimentel)

One evening last March, Toronto’s stylish set put on their best frocks and headed to a retail baptism. Sarah Jessica Parker, celebrity high priestess of fashion, was in town to launch the Halston Heritage label at The Bay. The party, which reportedly cost over $200,000, was meant to establish Canada’s oldest department store as a major player in high-end womenswear. If retailers can be born again, this was The Bay’s moment to lean back and dip its head into the holy water.

Fashion media and socialites were ushered into the Queen Street flagship store and up the escalator to sip champagne on the third floor. That’s where The Room is located. The upscale designer dress salon was renovated a year ago for approximately $4.4 million in a high modernist style by the designers Yabu Pushelberg. The result is a treasure trove of conversation piece baubles, heels, flirty cocktail dresses and gowns by some of the most prestigious designers in the business. It’s the beating heart of the new Bay.

The Halston invitation promised a chance to meet Parker for some chit-chat and a casual photo op. The stable of thoroughbred clothes horses in attendance that night included Wendy Melvin, the executive headhunter; Simona Shnaider, the wife of the billionaire steel magnate Alex Shnaider; and socialites Stacey Kimel and Catherine Nugent (who wore an original custom-made Halston suit). The dapper designer Wayne Clark rubbed shoulders with then-MTV Canada host Jessi Cruickshank, who bopped in wearing a Halston onesie. An immaculately coiffed Laureen Harper was toured around by Jeanne Beker. The in-store event was followed by a dinner at One Restaurant at the Hazelton Hotel for executives and VIPs. A Studio 54–themed after party was held for 700 slightly less important guests, who danced and drank the night away on a custom-constructed light-up dance floor at the nightclub This Is London.

Sarah Jessica Parker (Image: George Pimentel)

If you believe what you read on Twitter, this campaign to seduce the city’s most sought-after shoppers worked. During the event, Flare editor-in-chief Lisa Tant tweeted that Toronto’s socialites and Canada’s first lady were “breathless” in the company of Parker. Cruickshank overshared about nearly “wetting” herself with excitement. Another party guest compared the vibe in the room to “a bunch of eight-year-old girls waiting to meet Barbie.”

Earlier that night, before Parker arrived in a pair of four-inch silver Ferragamo heels, The Bay’s president and CEO, Bonnie Brooks, had some last-minute business to attend to. A female security guard wearing a poly-blend outfit was stationed at the party’s entrance and looked as frumpy as, well, a Hudson’s Bay security guard. Taking one look at the guard, Brooks instructed an office minion, “Get her out of here.” The order, like all of Brooks’ wishes, was immediately carried out. Such gaffes are small compared to what Brooks faces on her mission to remake the dowdy institution into a major fashion player. She can banish all the badly dressed people she wants, but will The Bay ever be seen as the most glamorous department store in Toronto? Not if the current holder of that title has anything to say about it.

Not since The Bay flogged beaver pelts has the company set its sights so high

The Bay is enormous. It’s Canada’s original big box chain, with 92 outlets from coast to coast, and it thought big from the beginning. Famously founded in the mid–17th century as a string of British-run trading posts (King Charles II signed the Royal Charter granting the company land and trading rights), the Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t branch into department store retail until 1913, when it launched its original six outlets in Western Canada. The first stores were modelled after Harrods in London—sprawling, diverse, one-stop shopping emporiums. They carried everything from stockings to liquor to tinned fish.

Holt Renfrew, The Bay’s main competitor for fashion shoppers, is small and chic—the little black dress of department store chains, with only nine outlets across Canada. Founded in 1837 (the same year as Tiffany and Hermès), it began as a hat store in Quebec City and for several decades served as the official furrier to the royal family. Holts hit its stride by bringing Christian Dior’s New Look to Canada in 1947. Exclusive accounts with other major European fashion houses soon followed, and Holts was established in its modern role as the country’s major high-end fashion retailer.

  • Pee

    Great attempt… but lets face it – The Bay on Queen will never be the same SIMPSONS on Queen. Have you ever seen the line up, tons of staff walking around and no one on cash to attend to you or answer a question ? Get real. At least Holts is a little better, its just the staff at Holts have such bad attitude, I would rathe rnot deal with them. You can never win!

  • Le

    High-end department stores in Canada, albeit mostly in Toronto, are a bit disdainful. It is unfortunate I choose to do my designer purchases overseas or online, if a plane isn’t within reach. Although, with a recent and most ever appreciated encounter with The Room, I will have to vouch for The Bay’s The Room for having fantastic Customer Service – unlike some of its unfortunate, and fairly snooty counterpart.

  • TOgal

    Wow, had no idea about Shinan Govani and his boyfriend at the Bay. Seems very unethical that he doesn`t mention the connection when he writes.
    Holts is still better than the Bay, but maybe they will catch up soon.

  • Service lover

    I think this article forgot one essential aspect of Toronto’s retail fashion landscape, our amazing independent boutiques.

    The Bay and Holts can compete all day long brining in designers and runway lines that are really for show as seen on their sale racks every season. What’s going to win customers over is service which is a unique shopping experience these days. You should be giving credit to Independents like TNT, Harry Rosen, Over the Rainbow and DAVIDS who offer all the designer brands as well as the customer service luxury shopping deserves.

  • Tamika A.

    After attending a designer’s spring / summer preview earlier this week, I can definitely appreciate the strides The Bay has made to improve it’s image. The Room is an oasis in an otherwise average department store. One would expect that The Room boasts amazing customer service and VIP treatment, that goes without saying when you’re purchasing designer labels that exceed the average customer’s monthly pay cheque. Wooing socialites and the upper crust is an important strategy, but it would be great to see leaps and bounds made for service to the everyday socialites at both retailers. The Bay is doing a great job of securing better brands, but their staff is either non-existent or ill-informed. I do suppose that’s better than Holts very unwelcoming crew who give off the impression that they’re doing you a favour just by being there. Bottom line, anywhere you patron with the intent to one day spend your hard earned dollars should treat you like royalty. Champagne would be nice, but a genuine hello, prompt service, and knowledgeable staff goes down just as smoothly.

  • nktokyo

    We moved to Canada from Asia a year ago and had no experience with Bay or Holt prior to our arrival.
    By the way, we are originally from the USA and Toronto is one of the most fabulous cities in the world. You Canadians have so much to be proud of.
    The merchandise at Bay reminds me of the pedestrian, non-descript inventory at most malls in the Midwest USA (Ohio, Iowa, Indiana). The stores feel dated but service is adequate.
    Holt’s offers a higher end product and the experience feels special. The window display on Bloor Street is on par with Barney’s New York. I had a snotty salesclerk in the Shoe Department last week but found a pair I wanted.
    I’ve been impressed with Toronto’s independents including Over the Rainbow, David’s and the fabulous WANT boutique.
    The hardest part is paying a 20-40% premium on the same merchandise I could buy in the US. The same pair of 7 for all Mankind jeans were $248 at Over the Rainbow and $168 at Nordstrom. Grrrrr.

  • Don Mitchell

    I think the end of this article sums it all up…as with alot of things in life, it’s “location, location, location.”!!! You (well not me that often, to be truthful…although occasionally!!) can leave Holts and quickly stroll to Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, etc. etc. etc. You can leave The Bay Queen Street and stroll to…where and what exactly?!? Now, I’m talking about the high-flying, high-spending shopper that this article seems to mostly be talking about. Holt’s, with it’s prime LOCATION, is more of a destination that people with that kind of money will be drawn to like the proverbial bees to honey. Yonge and Queen?!? Not for those rarefied shoppers. Interesting to see how this will all play out. Also, this article is really only focusing on mostly women…there are a fair number of men who drop a fair bit of money on apparel and again, you can leave Holts and go to Harry Rosen’s flagship on Bloor, etc. etc. etc. You get my point. Maybe “The Room” should have somehow been incorporated into The Bay’s
    Yonge and Bloor store?!?!? Just a thought… thing I totally agree with in this article?!? The service in both stores leaves ALOT to be desired.

  • Sarah

    The room at the bay has the worst customer service. Several times I have been left standing around holding clothes – sales people will walk buy but no one will ever ask me if I need help or would like to try on the pieces I am holding. I could drive up to yorkville, park and be in a change room before anyone at the Room bothered to look at me.

  • Jennifer

    While I applaud the efforts to improve the look of the fashion floors, elsewhere the flagship store of The Bay falls far short of Holt Renfrew; however Holt has its problems too. The service is absolutely terrible in The Bay, but then it always has been; however, often customer service at Holt Renfrew is not much better. Holt’s sister store Brown Thomas of Dublin is staffed with polite and knowledgeable individuals who appear to actually like their jobs. Both Galen Weston and Bonnie Brooks could take a note out of the Brown Thomas training manual. Aside from staff issues, I have to say that overall the worst affront by far has been on the part of The Bay for not yet demolishing the disgusting women’s washroom on the housewares floor (basement). Please for the sake of sanitation tear down this filthy loo and replace it with something comparable to the ones at Holt, and then you might have me onside.

  • Broker

    Let’s see what happens in 3 years when Richard Baker puts the Bays real estate back on the market like he did last year when he was cash strapped. He saw the value of the Bays amazing real estate which is valued pretty much on par with the Bays 92 stores and that’s why he bought the Bay. This is just another real estate deal with a retail spin on it. When Baker slips out the back door there will be some others foreign private equity group ready to try to make a quick buck from the Bay and dazzle us with another super CEO ready to try to shake things up and get some good press.

  • elk

    I love the Bay. I’m more of a White room shopper and think it’s great to be able to buy anything I need at the same store. I walked into Holts 4 years ago and received such a judgmental look and a negative comment from the staff that I left and never went back.

  • ni

    just fly to nyc on porter (or if you are the really rich, private plane) and shop there. The money spent on the flight/hotel is about as much as the mark-up.

  • social

    The Bay invites me to more parties. Bay1/Holts 0

  • Three Cheers for The Bay!

    The Bay and Holts have only one thing in common, they are both fashion department stores.
    The BIG difference is, that Holts only attracts one high end customer but yet at The Bay, it has a wide range of fashion available from a moderate to higher pricepoint.
    At Holts, you have to pay a fortune to look good, at The Bay, you can pay a fortune if you want, but there is also the option to not.
    The Bay understands that not everyone can afford the See by Chloe boot so instead also offers an over the knee boot for 99.99.
    I think we should celebrate that The Bay has still recognized the fashion forward moderate customer and yet still maintains the integrity of a high end fashion department store. Three cheers for The Bay!!

  • Amused

    Seems like Bonnie Brooks is spending a great deal of ‘not her own money’. Maybe this is a real estate play for Richard Baker afterall, as it hardly makes sense to think that 5 socialites will support all the sales at The Room. Also Shinan Govani can drop as many names and promote his boyfriend all he wants,if nobody buys the clothes that The Bay is putting out there, the whole thing will fail miserably.

  • Nic

    The bay should model itself on john Lewis or house of fraser in the uk. It is what Canada really needs. I think trying to emulate high-end holts is a mistake.

  • by Bay Shopper

    While this artical is focused on The Room, I’d like to give a shout out to the slow face lift to whole Bay store on Queen. There is a transformation that is happening throughout and it is a good one. For example, the addition of Toni Plus on the 4th floor is great! The service is amazing. Very friendly & knowledgeable.

    I agree, that the women’s loo in the basement is disgusting and it would be well spent money to have it updated.

    Go for it The Bay!

  • SR

    The buy at the Room is horrific, the buyer obviously thinks women are clowns!
    If you have terrible taste you will shop at the Bay. Holts definitely has a better selection of wearable modern and stylish clothes as well as shoes and as much as the staff is rude at Holts, they definitely have more knowledge than at the Bay. The collections the Bay carries could definitely be bought with much better taste, which I have seen in NY. The Parties are great, but neither my friends or I have bought at the Bay. I have advise to the Bay, fire Nicholas as we really think he has no taste or respect for women and focus on a better mix of wearable, price conscious pieces in the brands. Check out Nordstorms or Barney s for Ideas.And hire some one who is not focused on building himself but building the Room.

  • Stylist

    I agree!Wondering through the Room,and hoping to find pieces for a very savvy client who buys in London mostly,I could not believe how weird and expensive the choices the Bay has compare to London or Paris in the same collections. Have you considered the economy, even the wealthy do not want to spend 3 or 4 thousand on a dress they are going to wear once, these days are over.And they definitely do not want to look as if they were going to a Halloween party.
    I flew to Montreal and found amazing well priced items in GBV, Erdem, Thakoon and other collections that were more in the times of today at a Boutique with amazing service.The Bay versus Holts! There is no comparison and Holts will win
    I just feel sorry for the designers of the labels The Room carries, they should be more selective who they sell to if they want a future in Canada as they will die at the Bay.The shoes are definitely better at Holts!

  • Really?

    The Room is all well and great – it’s beautiful in fact. But have you been to any other Bay store? Better than Sears, yes, but still a foddy doddy dumpy department store with HORRIBLE customer service and not a shopper in sight.

    Honestly, I live in Yorkville and I went to the Bay at Yonge and Bloor and there wasn’t a person around! The sales people are incredibly dated and don’t have any sort of charm about them; they stand around bored to tears. They play elevator music for godsake.

    As fashion media we tend to only think about The Room as it hosts wonderful parties and ushers in international faces (which is incredibly impressive) – but let’s not forget the rest of Canada.

    Holt Renfrew has only a handful of stores, yes, but each store is a beacon of luxury and sophistication. The sales staff HAS style.

    Of course this is Toronto Life, focusing on Toronto. But please don’t draw up a comparison between two brands you have no right comparing. I would NEVER shop at The Bay.

  • Shopper

    The Room is a good looking space with some interesting brands, but the location service and environment can not be compared to the luxe of Holts.Parties are great but do they really sell clothes or just get publicity from the press that is invited. Great manipulation on Bonnie s part, I hope for her it is profitable.The selection I agree is some what out of touch with today, walking through I wondered who will be buying some of the expensive, over the top clothing.I wear some of the brands the Bay carries which I buy in NY and definitely they are selecting items that no one else buys. I don’t see how you can compare and I am sure that Holts will be always the #1 department store in Canada.I as above will never shop at the Bay!

  • JD

    The sales people at Holts are absolutely amazing! They are nice, stylish and serve the customer!!! Going to Holts is an experience all together and therefore my favourite Specialty retailer.

  • reporter

    What a joke to read that the Bay spend crazy money on Halston party. I was just at the downtown store and the stuff is displayed horribly. No wonder it’s not selling it looks like cheap crap, all pushed into the corner and hanging on cheap hangers. Also agree with the commenters above who said this buyer Nicolas is choosing ridiculous clothes for The Room. Too expensive and hardly wearable.
    Also since we can see from the article, his boyfriend Shinan Govani, pretty much gets paid to write about the Bay, do these so called sociliates get paid as well? If not this has to be pretty embarassing to be outed like that.

  • KK

    I have been at a couple of the parties and heard some really bad comments about the selection of their clothes even though the parties were fun, they were not focused on the real customer but on the socialites,Nicholas and the media.
    I knew many people in the Room who shop everywhere and can buy but they felt the clothing was not within the modern times of today. Who wears Moschino or Galliano and unless you are a rock star Balmain, Nicholas have you not heard of a great little Black Dress? Obviously not!Shoes that do not scream Tacky! No wonder Hazel went bankrupt as every one knew it would. Did the Bay consider this when they hired him? He should be a sales person but definitely not a director of anything.Holts will alway have a better team of buyers and executives as they know who is the best in the business to recruit in every way, Holts executives are youthful, stylish and very modern in their vision of a woman or man. The Bays people are all the oldies Holts Fired. Too bad that the Bay does not know how to recruit more experienced and fabulous individuals to work for them.I do not see how they will top Holts with their back word approach and I guess I am just so much more secure spending my money at Holts, Corbo and TNT. I agree with the last 4 comments totally and I am just a customer but I feel that Nicholas is not one of the most admired, or liked within the clients. The Bay has to put some thought in to changes.

  • customer

    I do think there is no comparison, I shop at both for different things. House/ kitchen the Bay, Clothing Holts.The environment at the Bay is not exactly fitted for shopping for a wardrobe, especially designer.they both should focus on filling a niche that is needed instead of trying to take each others customers.I guess the old staff of Holts that is working at the Bay is out to revenge their old employer. They will see in time that revenge never works out.They are both needed for different things. Wish them luck.

  • SeriousShopper

    The Room is nice, but as most have mentioned it’s hobbled by Queen Street and the rest of the building. The Bay needs to be sliced into at least 3 segments: Holt’s competitors in major centers (10-15 stores), a refreshed more Macy’s general merchandiser in suburban and middling centers (30-40 stores), a closer to Target brand for lower end suburbs and rural areas (30-40 stores), as well as closing 0-20 stores.

    While Holt’s is the nicest in Canada, it’s far inferior to the other Weston owned department stores. Brown Thomas and Selfridge’s are amazing yet none of their influence seems to get transplanted. Better spaces, better brands, far better merchandising… Holt’s also lacks horribly in service. There are a few decent sales people, but they are too few and far between, especially on the 3rd floor. The gap is especially visible in Menswear, with amazing competition surrounding the store.

  • customer

    Agree with the serious shopper! The Bay need to be sliced into 4 at least to comply with the shoppers in the areas they are located.Queen Street should be aimed at the financial districts business women/men and then they will have the business they desire.
    Holts on the other hand can”t hold a candle to Selfridges but that really is the GMM and creative directors fault. The President has no fashion knowledge and that does not help. A new GMM and creative director or Designer general Manager with an open, creative mind and fabulous merchandising skills would solve the problem, but I am sure Mr. Weston is aware and also has the knowledge of where to find the Talent needed.


    The Bay does not really want women customers. It has taken me awhile to realize this. Great clothes??? It takes more than that to keep women (or anyone) as a customer. How about great washrooms? I’d accept good washrooms from the Bay. Their washrooms are such an embarassment that I refuse to bring friends who visit Canada from the USA. If they do visit the Bay on Queen- we head over to the Sheraton. Even City Hall is better. If the Bay cannot correct that service (Holt’s are the beacon in that area) the new fashions will just be another store change that means nothing to every woman I have asked.


    I think Bonnie Brook is on the right track with loss leaders to bring in the crowd. Knowing the death of Eatons was lousy buyers and the disappearance of Eaton Brand items. It became a shopping mall in a shopping mall selling exactly the same gear and usually for more money. Bonnie if you read this look into Thai Fashion…fabulous designs, incredible fabrics and workmanship and the prices are a steal.

  • KR

    I can proudly state I have never set foot in Holt’s in all my years in Toronto. I simply don’t feel the need to pay big bucks to experience big attitude.

  • Craig P.

    If you read some of the negative comments above, you’ll notice varioius similarities (mostly gramatical, capitalization and spelling errors). It would appear that one person has made multiple negative posts over several days. Take a close second look (KK, SR, Stylist and possibly others)

    I, for one, am excited for what The Bay is doing. Bonnie and Nicholas have my support. The Bay has an enormous road ahead if it wants to make improvements (interiors, washrooms, restaurants, vendors, etc), and they might be able to do it with an IPO and recent cash from the sale of Zellers.

    It would be beneficial if The Bay were able to dump some stores in smaller centres (this is difficult given the nature of retail leases). Red Deer, Kamloops, and Moncton will never have the fashion market to support women’s and men’s White Space departments, Coach shops, and other recent additions to The Bay in larger centres.

  • Toronto Security Guard Company

    Such a long written page to read, keep up the good work.