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In Canada — where land is abundant but the population is sparse — the combination of a resilient economy and small market provides both opportunities and challenges. Owned and operated by Daniel and Arthur Chmielewski, HAVEN is one of the country’s success stories, a retailer committed to forward-thinking fashion while nurturing the awareness and appreciation of its goods locally. The company currently operates three brick-and-mortar locations in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto, along with an online web shop, and stocks a globally-sourced mix of labels that includes everything from NEIGHBORHOOD and WTAPS to Reigning Champ, Nike and Levi’s. Co-owner Daniel Chmielewski recently sat down with us to talk about the ins and outs of running the business, the Canadian retail landscape, the role of editorial content in retail, and the concept of value over price. Read on for the interview in its entirety and be sure to visit HAVEN’s online store here.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at HAVEN?
Daniel Chmielewski, co-founder and owner of HAVEN. My role in the company is primarily head of operations, as well as assisting my brother and business partner Arthur with buying. That being said, my role varies day to day. I travel a lot internationally with Arthur for buying trips. While in Canada, I’m making sure the brick and mortar and online shops are running smoothly. On any given day you can find me answering emails, taking photos, or on the shop floor of one of our retail locations.
Can you provide an overview of your company structure?
The company is private and is co-owned by my brother Arthur and I. We have 15 employees spread across three retail locations in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto, Canada. Among the staff, roles are divided between the retail operation and web operation, however, all our staff are handpicked and well-trained and are capable of handling a variety of tasks either on the retail, web or production side. The company structure is flat for the most part. All our staff have direct access to us on a daily basis. More than that, we all consider ourselves a big family and the friendships developed from working at the company go beyond the workplace.
Placing your roots in a smaller market like Edmonton at the start, how was this advantageous in the company’s growth?
We’ve had a tremendous amount of support from the Edmonton community since day one. By starting there, we essentially had minimal competition in the early days, which allowed us to really go for the brands and direction we wanted. We took risks and brought in brands from Japan and elsewhere that other retail shops weren’t carrying in Canada. Our select brand list got us noticed by others, especially on the Internet, which played a big factor in our growth over the years. Slowly but surely, we cultivated a name for ourselves and became known for carrying exclusive Japanese and select menswear brands from around the globe. We grew as a company and it was natural to expand into Vancouver and Toronto.
With Canada being such a highly taxed country, how does this factor into the business side?
Taxes are an inevitable part of life here in Canada. Whether we are importing from overseas, or selling to customers in-stores, taxes are always a factor. That being said, we try to focus on value and not price. The product we carry speaks for itself and commands a price point that is representative of the quality of the item. Also, by value, I don’t mean just the product. Value is everything from our web experience, our customer service, and our in-store experience.
What are some of the benefits of operating a business in Canada?
Canada in general is a good place to start a business. The economy here is strong and resistant to recession. The markets seem to be growing, and not just in our industry. In other words, Canadians are very receptive to new ideas. If you are an entrepreneur that has traveled a bit, you’ll likely see an abundance of business ideas that have not yet been touched on in Canada. In this sense, Barriers to entry are relatively low and it really comes down to whether you’re willing to put in the personal blood, sweat and tears to develop a successful business.
What was your online strategy from the get-go? Was it ever prioritized over brick & mortar?
We knew that by starting in a smaller market like Edmonton that our online strategy was of crucial importance. It was never prioritized over the brick & mortar per se but we dedicated just as much energy to our website as we did to our physical retail. We were fortunate in a sense that when we launched our online shop it was back in the early days of e-commerce. Online sales in those days were an afterthought for most of our competitors; something to work on during “downtime.” Most web stores had poor photography, little to no descriptions of their products, and no editorial content in sight. We’ve always tried to stay a step ahead of everybody else in these aspects and always strive for continuous improvement.
How important is online sales for any retailer these days?
Online sales are more important than ever for any retailer. I can’t speak for other industries, but in retail, online sales are not just important, they are a necessity. Both the online and in-store work hand in hand for us to create a full experience. That being said, the online marketplace is highly competitive. Yes, there is potential for greater exposure and quicker growth, but in order to yield these benefits you need to be willing to put in the work.
“Our select brand list got us noticed by others, especially on the Internet, which played a big factor in our growth over the years. Slowly but surely, we cultivated a name for ourselves and became known for carrying exclusive Japanese and select menswear brands from around the globe.”
Daniel Chmielewski on the advantages of HAVEN’s roots in Edmonton
Editorial meets retail has been a highly discussed element of retail, what value do you place in this?
Editorial content is playing an increasingly more significant role in retail. Customer “education” is a vital part of any retail operation these days. By showing customers how to style their purchases or delving into the backgrounds of the brands we carry via videos and interviews, a greater understanding and appreciation of the product is achieved. An important factor in this is original content. Delivering your content in an intelligent, meaningful and original way is just as important as the content itself. At HAVEN, we’ve launched our “Intelligence” section in order to serve this need. We align ourselves with talented people that have a passion for what they do. Whether it’s videography, photography or writing, it’s a group effort and the end result is something that we’re very proud of. In our “Intelligence” section you can find seasonal lookbooks, product “anatomy” or dissections, as well as very in-depth interviews and videos with the brands and people we’ve developed relationships with.
How have you tried to differentiate yourself from other retailers that operate in a similar space?
We aim for excellence in all aspects of our business. Our company is unique in that we operate retail brick and mortar stores throughout Canada, as well as having an exceptional web presence. Our travels have greatly influenced the way we view retail. By providing customers with a more personal and unique retail environment, we hope to enhance the average shopping experience. The product itself is what we feel to be the best out there in terms of menswear. We’ve definitely become known as one of the largest purveyors of Japanese menswear brands outside of Japan. But whether it’s technical garments, bags and luggage, or footwear, we affiliate ourselves with companies worldwide that are innovative and leaders in their fields. Lastly, the online arm of our business continues to grow and constantly evolve as we come up with new ways to deliver the best shopping experience for our web customers.
With Toronto as the most recent HAVEN stop, given the few number of large cities in Canada, how will this impact growth?
Toronto has been really good to us. We had built up a name for ourselves in the online marketplace prior to establishing a brick and mortar location there. We knew from the number of orders we were getting from the East Coast that there was a definite void in the marketplace for the selection we were carrying and the type of retail we were doing. In that way, there wasn’t a need to build a customer base from scratch out east because we were already well-known in the marketplace. We kept our concept of being a destination shop and decided to place our store on Queen St. East, far away from the other retailers on the other side of the city. Speaking from a size perspective, Toronto is our largest brick and mortar location and carries our full selection of products.
Do you see a ceiling on growth in Canada based on the size of the market?
Despite being a large country in terms of landmass, Canada has a small population. To be honest, we haven’t considered opening another retail location in Canada. Despite not growing any more retail locations in Canada, we’re still focused very much on online growth. Our website is constantly changing and evolving. We will be delving deeper into the idea of not only being a retailer but also providing content alongside amazing product. Other areas we’re hard at work at is the production side of things with our in-house line that is set to launch this fall exclusively at our shops. We are working with some amazing fabric suppliers and factories in both Canada and Japan.
How do metrics and big data factor into your buying and overall approach to business?
They don’t matter to us as much as one might think. Yes, it is important to keep an eye on website traffic, weekly sales, expenses, and the like. But what is more important is to deliver great, high-quality content. I get asked advice a lot from others looking to get into the retail industry. I usually tell them it’s not about getting posted on this website, or that blog. Sure that will help with traffic a bit. But if people go to your site and you don’t give them a reason to stay, then you’ll never be successful. Don’t worry too much about sales and traffic if you are just starting out. Worry more about if your product is top-notch, if your content delivery is outstanding, and if your editorial content is present. If you do this, then everything will naturally fall into place.
Any last words you’d like to share about the business side of HAVEN?
I started this business with my brother almost seven years ago. There were countless obstacles to overcome in the early years. But what helped to overcome these obstacles was that we believed in our product and believed in what we were doing. Stay genuine and true to your core mission and people will see that and naturally be attracted to it. That, and work your ass off.
“Editorial content is playing an increasingly more significant role in retail. Customer ‘education’ is a vital part of any retail operation these days. By showing customers how to style their purchases or delving into the backgrounds of the brands we carry via videos and interviews, a greater understanding and appreciation of the product is achieved.”
Daniel Chmielewski on editorial meets retail