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Canadian retailing in the spotlight

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Co-located Canadian events, the Hardlines Conference Series and the National Hardware Show Canada, took place alongside a strong Canadian economy.

TORONTO —If it were a television program, the Canadian economy would be called “That 70s Show.” It’s been about 40 years since some key economic metrics have been as strong as they are today north of the border.

September figures revealed:

The Canadian dollar has the highest value since 1974.

Canada’s unemployment rate was at its lowest since 1974.

Housing starts were at their highest since 1978.

What’s more, “There’s no smoking gun out there that’s going to bring it down,” said Peter Norman, senior director, Altus Clayton economic consulting.

The strong Canadian economy served as the backdrop for a pair of Canadian events last month—the Hardlines Conference Series and the National Hardware Show Canada. While retailers at the conference spoke of smooth sailing ahead, new products took the forefront at the co-located trade show.

Exhibitors with hockey-skate sharpeners and hockey sticks gave the event a Canadian flavor above and beyond its Toronto location, as more than 230 exhibitors showcased their products and services for the Canadian home improvement market. According to Scott Temple, managing director of Reed Exhibitions Canada, producers of the National Hardware Show Canada, some 75 of those companies were new exhibitors.

Wendy Hung, a housewares buyer for Mississauga, Ontario-based Bargain Shop, a 180-store Canadian chain, walked out of the Toronto Congress Centre here with a new Acer laptop computer, a prize given away by the people at the ScotiaStar Network booth. The laptop wasn’t the only hardware that interested Hung.

“The LED flameless candles were pretty cool,” said Hung, who tended to focus on the housewares products on the show floor.

Other retailers roamed the floor with a wider product focus. “It’s a good show for finding what’s new,” said Bernie Duryek, of Coda Co., in Mount Forest, Ontario.

The show floor included a New Product World area showcasing a diverse group of products. Numerous products reflected interest in environmental friendliness or energy reduction, including a wooden rainwater tank from USD and non-toxic SoyGuard wood treatment from Erie, Pa.-based BioPreserve.

Temple, who was named as show director last year, said he was encouraged by the new products on display, the new exhibitors and the willingness of attendees to come from far-off provinces. He described attendance as up 5 percent overall, from the inaugural 2006 event. “We need to continue to build relationships with industry associations and exhibitors to market the show and make it a must-attend annual event,” he said.

“We’re not too concerned with effects from the U.S.,” said Norman. “I don’t see why there would be a lot of spillover effects, except psychological.”

The strong Canadian dollar is encouraging to some of the U.S.-based vendors. It’s more expensive to attend a foreign trade show, but that’s more than compensated by the increase in business from the increased buying power of Canadian customers, said David Silverman, global sales manager for General Pipe Cleaners in McKees Rocks, Pa. “It sounds like a bad thing, but a weak U.S. dollar can be good for business.”

At T-Brace, a Dallas-based manufacturer of a bracing system for walk boards and scaffold planks, the healthy Canadian remodeling market was even more attractive than the healthy Canadian dollar.

“This is our first time here, and we were excited by the strong demand for remodeling in Canada,” said Todd Ryan, national sales manager.

RONA CEO: WE’RE NOT FOR SALE

RONA CEO Robert Dutton said his Boucherville, Quebec-based retailer and distributor would remain Canadian, despite rumors of a buyout from Lowe’s.

“I suppose someone wants to know if RONA is for sale,” Dutton said during a question-and-answer session following his presentation on the evolution of the home improvement industry in Canada. “We are not on sale.”

He added: “We are a Canadian company, and personally I want to prove that Canadians can have success in the retail business. With the cooperation of all our suppliers, we can continue to be the leader. I’m sure of it.”

The comment sparked applause from the room of Hardlines Conference attendees, many of them suppliers.

Lowe’s intends to open its first stores in Canada in December and intends to grow organically, despite speculation that acquisitions of Canadian companies are a more likely approach to expansion.

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