Eco-friendly Ottawa retailer terra20 goes old school with brick-and-mortar Train Yards expansion

Train Yards terra20
The new terra20 outlet at the Ottawa Train Yards is the company's third location in the National Capital Region. Photo courtesy terra20

Bill Stewart’s company is a rare breed these days ​– a brick-and-mortar retailer that’s actually expanding during the COVID-19 crisis.

Stewart is the co-founder of Ottawa-based terra20, a chain that specializes in eco-friendly merchandise such as natural skin-care products and bathroom cleaners made without toxic chemicals.

While many traditional retailers have seen their sales crater during the pandemic, Stewart says terra20 is holding its own. The company is even preparing to cut the ribbon on a new franchised location that’s slated to open Thursday at the Ottawa Train Yards – the chain’s third store in the National Capital Region after its 20,000-square-foot corporate flagship location at the Pinecrest Shopping Centre and an 1,100-square-foot franchised outlet in Hintonburg. 

“People know what they want, but more importantly they know what they don’t want – and that’s toxins in the products they use every day,” says Stewart, who launched terra20 in 2012 with business partner Steve Kaminski.

Terra20’s revenues have grown at roughly five to seven times the industry average over the past eight years, Stewart says. While its online sales have been fairly robust, its brick-and-mortar locations feature popular elements such as the ecobar, where shoppers can stock up on more than two dozen non-toxic Canadian-made products such as dishwashing and laundry detergent, hand soaps, shampoos and bathroom cleaners using refillable containers.

Despite the acceleration of e-commerce during the pandemic, Stewart says he believes physical stores still play an important role in growing a greener retail customer base.

“We’re targeting the mainstream consumer,” he says. “They need a place where they can touch (products) and (staff) can educate them.” 

Stewart says even though the business was designated an essential service, terra20 closed its two existing locations on March 20 out of concern for customer and employee safety. Within a day, the chain pivoted to sell its products exclusively online while offering same-day delivery within Ottawa. 

Since the lockdown began, the company has managed to retain about 70 per cent of its revenues compared with last year, Stewart notes. He attributes the company’s resilience to a new breed of consumer that’s “more conscious of the origins of the products they buy” and what they’re made of.

The Train Yards location, which will be operated by franchisee Kas MacMillan, was finalized last November. The 2,000-square-foot store was originally expected to open June 1, but the pandemic delayed its completion.

Terra20 is now negotiating with a couple of potential franchisees in the Greater Toronto Area, Stewart says, adding the company is looking to keep expanding its footprint in the nation’s capital as well.

“I think there’s a role for terra20 to play with that emerging consumer,” he says.