When you walk into the new Canadian Tire store in Whitehorse your mouth drops at its epic size.
But a strange feeling quickly sets in. You’ve been here before.
Not in a Canadian Tire in northern Canada, mind you, but perhaps one in the suburbs of Calgary, or Surrey, British Columbia, or along the 401-highway in Anywhereville, Ontario.
Such corn-fed proportions beg certain questions.
Can a community of about 23,000 people support a store this massive, parked as it is beside a similarly huge Wal-Mart?
Can Canadian Tire find enough workers in a city currently strapped for unskilled labour?
And is Canadian Tire’s abandonment of its former folksy home for the burgeoning big box bonanza at the base of Two Mile Hill another sign that Whitehorse is losing a connection with its simpler, “northern” roots?
Owner and manager Dan Charlebois doesn’t worry about such challenges for his store, which opened on March 15.
The decision to move and expand is all about space, he said.
“They (Canadian Tire) make sized ‘E’ through ‘A’ and this is an ‘A-box’ store,” said Charlebois from his corner office that overlooks the massive shopping area.
“This is the biggest size they make.”
In fact, just as Charlebois expected, the size of the $18.5-million store has already proven to be its biggest asset.
“Judging by the first five days of sales it’s not going to be an issue,” he said before breaking into laughter. “The first day of business we were up 207 per cent; the second day we were up 100-and-something per cent.
“It’s been almost double the business,” he said.
Customers from Alaska, Inuvik, Old Crow and Atlin will frequent the store — meaning it will be supported by its neighbours and not just the locals, said Charlebois.
“We do have a large tourist demand, especially in the summer time,” he added. “Our summer months are as busy as Christmas.”
With such a market eager for size, he wouldn’t have minded even more space to show off merchandise, he said.
Even if it’s not as big as he really wanted, the shiny new box is impressive.
Where the old store was cramped, the new one has 9,300 square metres of space (more than 6,300 of them used for retail), and draws comparisons with football stadiums.
An Air North 737 could probably buy yard furniture here and not get in anybody’s way.
The space allows a large range of products to be displayed in a more pleasing way — which increases profits, said Charlebois.
You don’t have to imagine what your covered gazebo, matching chairs, frosted-glass table and chaise lounge will look like at your house — they’re now sitting on display in the store.
There are also three-times as many parking spots.
That’s a big plus for Canadian Tire’s bottom line, as the old store’s tiny parking lot forced cars to queue for spots.
But Charlebois does recognize a certain romance has been lost in the transition from old to new, and is working hard to keep the right visual cues.
“The old store had a Yukon flavour, which we really liked and the customer really liked,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing everything to regionalize the store so that people know you’re still in the Yukon.”
“We’re going to get tourists here and they’re going to say, ‘Wow.’”
There are two stuffed bears and a moose, as well as caribou and sheep heads placed around the store.
Plans call for a display honouring the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, community activities, and even a large bald eagle holding a fish in its talon, he said.
The effect is a touch more Yukon tourist trap than Yukon wildlife museum, but has already struck a chord with visitors.
“I’ve had people that have been to the Calgary stores that have said, ‘This is really different, even though it’s very similar to the stores down there,’” said Charlebois.
“We’re adding a flavour.”
Shelving area has also been modified from the typical Canadian Tire mega box to reflect the Yukon location, he said.
Space for fishing and other sporting gear displays has been pushed up by about 50 per cent.
Area for air conditioners has been shrunk compared to southern Canada.
Size brings staffing requirements, though,
Ten checkout aisles sit perched ready for an anticipated increase in business at the store.
But fewer than half were open on Monday afternoon.
Despite employing dozens more people than the previous site, the new store is already short-staffed.
“We’re still looking,” said Charlebois of workers, noting the employee scrolls now list about 86 people.
The old store topped out at 72 during peak season and usually sat closer to 50.
As he said this, a manager came into his office.
“Do we need more people?” Charlebois asked.
The female manager laughed, then joked: “We need 15 more people … by tomorrow.”
How many workers does the store need to run properly?
“We need about 120 right now,” said Charlebois, noting the coming summer season is traditionally the busiest in Whitehorse.
Competitors for retail workers — like Wal-Mart — surround the new Canadian Tire.
So too does competition for customers.
But the store’s location isn’t an accident.
“We always like to be beside a Wal-Mart,” said Charlebois. “That’s the best place for us to be.”
Some may worry the drift to the big box grounds has taken Canadian Tire out of walking distance.
“There’s not a lot of choice; there’s no land in town,” said Charlebois. “We stayed as close to town as possible with the land available.
“To me it’s not that far … we’re not really ‘out of town,’ we’re just a couple of blocks out of town.”
Being close to the inevitable traffic Wal-Mart creates also allows Canadian Tire to play up its own strengths, he said.
What are they?
“We’re able to show more of the product that we carry that has the same cross lines that Wal-Mart has,” said Charlebois. “We’re really happy to be able do that now.
“Our money and our profit stays in Whitehorse,” he added. “It doesn’t go down to the US.”
He’s hoping the money and profits stay in the store, not in the pockets of thieves.
In fact, the overriding impression one gets from Charlebois’ office is that it’s a security nerve centre.
A massive Sony LCD television on the wall displays views from nine security cameras at a time.
They toggle every minute or so, each watching a customer milling about.
On one of his two computer screens are another four camera views he clicks through with his mouse.
There are 86 security cameras in total.
“They’re an unfortunate but necessary evil” to combat shoplifting and keep prices low, said Charlebois.
The technology was chosen after requests from the RCMP for sharper images, he added.
But with a large personal investment in the biggest Canadian Tire this side of 60, they’re perhaps understandable.
“It will be a very viable business, otherwise I wouldn’t have invested the money,” said Charlebois of the mega store.
“It’s a long way for our customers to come. If they’re coming from Watson Lake or Dawson City, we want to make sure they have what they want when they get here.”