Local high-end clothing store on Sussex re-emerges from the shadow of Nordstrom

Schad boutique - downtown

As Nordstrom prepares to close its doors next month, it’s looking like sunny days for one local boutique owner.

Schad Boutique, a women’s luxury clothing store on Sussex Drive, has been in business for about 25 years and, after coming through the pandemic, owner Chantal Biro says she’s excited for what’s ahead.

Biro said she didn’t mean to start a boutique that would become a staple for women’s clothing in the market, rather, she “fell into it by accident.” At age 27, she was working as a researcher and helping her now-ex-husband with his business ventures. That’s when she said she noticed a gap in the local clothing market.

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“It’s hard to believe, but at the time there weren’t a lot of boutique stores that catered to my age and style. They were either for an older clientele or very young and less expensive,” Biro said. “There wasn’t anything in between and I wanted to bring that concept at a time when there really wasn’t anything.”

Schad, named after her ex-husband’s surname, began as a clothing store for both men and women, but has been in its “current state” as a curated selection for women for about 14 years, Biro said. She said she was able to stay relevant and popular among competitors — Holt Renfrew, for example — by bringing in exclusive, hard-to-find California brands at a higher price point with better quality. 

But when Nordstrom opened a store just down the street at the CF Rideau Centre in 2015, Biro said her boutique took a “big hit.”

“I remember (Nordstrom) sent a team of about 16 people to my store when I wasn’t there. They were scouting everything we did and my staff called me wondering what they should do. I told my staff to tell them we did well with a brand that we really didn’t,” she admitted, laughing. “We had brought in this Australian brand and it bombed. And when Nordstrom opened, they had a huge section of that brand.”

However, overall, Nordstorm’s move into the neighbourhood was “quite upsetting,” she said. 

“It was hard knowing what they were going to bring and any time a store like this opens, it makes a big splash,” she explained. “People were reasonably excited.”

Biro’s customers, often businesswomen living or working downtown or travelling for work, stuck with her even as other shoppers flocked to Nordstrom and, eight years later, Schad Boutique stayed afloat and Biro watched as the department store went under.

She said she has a unique perspective on the retail market in Ottawa that other stores miss.

“When Nordstrom first opened, it was great, but everyone thinks they understand the Ottawa market and it’s very particular,” Biro explained. “On paper, there’s money in the city, but it’s still a government town and people don’t go out the way they do in Montreal or Vancouver and they don’t spend as much money the same way.

“When Nordstrom opened, they thought they could read the city.”

Ian Lee, associate professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, told OBJ earlier this year that the retailer might have been doomed from the beginning. When Nordstrom first announced its closure in Canada, Lee argued that the Ottawa market was not well-suited to the retailer, saying that while Nordstrom targets “people who don’t quibble over prices,” Ottawa is not a wealthy city.

“It wasn’t a good fit for Ottawa. And Nordstrom’s exit will force Cadillac Fairview to be creative and reinvent the Rideau Centre. This is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Lee argued.

Biro said her advantages during the pandemic were her loyal customers and the small size of her business. She usually employs two part-time staff members and has had an online store for almost 10 years, allowing her more flexibility.

“I think it’s easier for me to pivot because I don’t invest as much in a line as (Nordstrom) would have and I’ve been around long enough. I’m buying specifically for customers, for women who’ve been shopping with me for 25 years,” she said. “And my investments aren’t as huge (as Nordstrom), so if a line doesn’t do well, I can clear it out and start with something else. I’m not doing it in huge numbers, so I’m able to bring a bit more fun.”

When COVID hit, the traffic downtown “wasn’t a decrease — it was a complete shutdown,” Biro said. With all her sales moved online and customers looking for casual wear instead of professional clothing, Schad had to adapt.

“I was getting what I call ‘pity buys’ from friends and loyal customers, where I knew, ‘She would never buy this, it’s just to help me out,’” said Biro. “I went to my suppliers in a panic, I said, ‘I’m doing well online, but it’s about to run out.’”

Biro got lists of all of the inventory available from the suppliers and posted every bit of clothing available on her website. When a customer made a purchase, she would buy and order the inventory from the supplier and ship it directly, effectively cutting out the need for an in-person display. 

Now, Biro is looking ahead to what she hopes will be a busy summer.

“People are travelling more, I’ve noticed, and I’m seeing the business traveller coming back that we kind of lost during COVID.”

Biro said she is purposely located right near some of Ottawa’s most popular hotels. Her regular customers make up the majority of her sales, she said, but when they go on vacation in the summer, she focuses on tourists. 

Meanwhile, the Schad Boutique online store is still serving Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, with shipping available worldwide. 

“Like any other small business downtown, the working from home for government employees does not work for us, it has not been great for business, so seeing them come back to the office, even a little bit, has made a difference,” Biro said. “And a lot of travellers who are government employees are coming to Ottawa for work trips.”

 While she will likely see the advantages from Nordstrom’s closure, it will be bittersweet, she said.

“I want to emphasize that when a big store like that closes down, it’s not great for the downtown core and for the city, or for the employees,” she said. “It was a big draw to the downtown and everyone hurts. It’s a big hole that’s not good for the Rideau Centre, it’s not good for business.

“But the day that Nordstrom announced they were closing, it was unbelievable — I started getting new customers who were Nordstrom customers saying they were looking for a new clothing store,” Biro added. “And because I’m relatively close (to the Rideau Centre), I think it’s going to be a huge benefit.”

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