Victoria’s Secret: How the government city is attracting notable retail names

Why Victoria is the new hot place to set up shop

John Fluevog Shoes found a suitable Victoria home

Move over, Robson Street: Big brands like the provincial capital’s charm, cosmopolitanism and thriving tourism industry

Last June hundreds of shoppers lined up along Lower Johnson Street in downtown Victoria, waiting for hours in the blistering heat, to attend the opening of John Fluevog Shoes. The new store, in American Apparel’s former space, was a homecoming for the Vancouver-based shoe designer, who had a boutique in Victoria in the 1970s with then-partner Peter Fox.

“Victoria has never been off the map; it’s been a case of finding the right location,” says Stephen Bailey, Fluevog’s chief marketing officer. “Victoria still has that creative energy it used to have, but has a more diverse palate these days, with a strong tourism industry and a community of people wanting to embrace diversity.”

Fluevog’s return coincides with a number of brands coming to Victoria for the first time. U.S. retailer DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse chose the provincial capital for its first B.C. shop in 2015. DSW has since launched in the Lower Mainland.

Chocolats Favoris, a Quebec City–based chocolate and ice cream chain, opened its first outlet west of Ottawa in Victoria in July 2016. Company president Dominique Brown was walking down Government Street when he saw a space for lease.

Expansion west has been on Brown’s radar since he bought Chocolats Favoris in 2012. Victoria didn’t “check all the boxes” in the company’s demographic study, but tourism and the appeal of a downtown storefront were enough to take a risk that has proven worthwhile.

Johnny Rockets Canada, part of the U.S. diner-style fast-food chain, which has more than 350 restaurants in 29 countries, made its debut in Victoria last year. When JR Canada Restaurant Group Ltd. president and CEO Lewis Gelmon bought the Canada-wide rights to Johnny Rockets in 2015, he could have chosen any city to launch in. “I picked Victoria because I like the direction the city is heading in,” the local resident says. “We have a solid foundation of students populating the city, the government offices, and we have a lot of growth heading into the downtown core as well as the tourists.”

Johnny Rockets has four restaurants in B.C., two in Victoria, two in Vancouver, and it made a splash upon opening by offering a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Gelmon plans for 20 Johnny Rockets diners across Canada by 2021.

The next big opportunity for an influx of new brands to Victoria is at Ivanhoé Cambridge’s Mayfair Mall, undergoing a $72-million expansion that will add 100,000 square feet and about 20 new retail locations when it reopens this fall.

Victoria is a more appealing market today than it was even five years ago, says Fluevog’s Bailey. The city’s developing cultural identity means a desire for more self-expression—and shopping. “Victorians are foodies, artistic, liberal,” Bailey notes. “They’re into quirky fashion; they’re spoiled for music. Those creative elements are often missed about Victoria.”