Simons sees new app as the future of retail

VANCOUVER — Simons department store chain is launching a new app as part of its plan to grow its e-commerce business.

“We really felt the need to close that gap between e-commerce and our physical and digital footprint,” said Peter Simons, president of the Quebec-based company.

The company spent about two years working on the app, which will be available Thursday, and invested between $3 million- and- $4 million into the venture, he said.

It includes a feature that allows users to upload a photo of a product they like — be it in a magazine, another store or on a passerby — and see recommendations of similar items at Simons.

“It’s something that the apparel industry and the tech industry have been playing around with for some time,” said Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet, a retail advisory firm.

The camera is becoming the new keyboard, he said, explaining the Internet is shifting from predominantly text-based to a more visual platform.

With the advent of better cameras embedded in smartphones and more capable artificial intelligence, he said consumers will grow increasingly accustomed to visual searches.

The Simons app also integrates loyalty data, tracks previous in-store and online purchases, and allows shoppers to scan tags in-store for product data.

The company is very focused on its e-commerce business, Simons said, and is also working on building a high-tech, robotic distribution facility in the future.

He’s honed in on a 500,000-square-foot property and said the company is working to put together the technological players and financing for the project.

That kind of upgrade is going to be essential for any e-commerce business, Stephens said, as businesses work to drive all inefficiencies out of the shipping process.

Online retail juggernaut Amazon set the benchmark for the rest of the industry, he said. Amazon uses a robotic technology known as the Kiva system in its warehouses and offers same-day delivery in many locations, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Last year, Hudson’s Bay Company (TSX:HBC) unveiled $60 million worth of upgrades to its Toronto distribution centre, including a robotics system intended to speed up deliveries.

Simons said its new facility will be a huge capital investment. The company operates 15 stores in Canada, most of which are in Quebec, and is in the midst of a five-year, $200-million national expansion.

But that doesn’t mean the 177-year-old company will go public any time soon, he said.

“I’m trying to avoid it, because I would like to maintain the freedom that we have with our private ownership,” Simons said, saying it allows him to make choices public companies may not be able to.

“I don’t know if we’d be able to make those choices that I would, that I would feel good with, that our organization would feel good with at the same time as satisfying this sort of insatiable quench for quarterly performance.”

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