April 11, 2016

Canadian Retailer Roots Finds Surprising Success in Asia

By Chuck Chiang

Signage in Vancouver indicating the start of the ‘Roots loves Taiwan’ campaign to celebrate the brand’s unexpected success in the Asian market.

As featured in the Vancouver Sun: One wouldn’t expect Roots, often viewed as one of Canada’s quintessential apparel brands, to find a large market across the Pacific (and in a semi-tropical climate, no less).

But that is exactly what has happened, partially because of a wave of immigration into Canada during the 1990s from that particular market.

The market is Taiwan, where the average winter temperature in most cities rarely falls below 15 degrees, and winter sports are all but non-existent (its Winter Olympics team usually consists of just a few athletes).

But that has not stopped Roots. This year, the Toronto-based brand and its Taiwanese partner, Branded Lifestyle, will celebrate Roots’ 20th anniversary in that market with a new marketing campaign (which is already being displayed at the company’s flagship Vancouver store on Robson Street) featuring photos shot in Taiwan earlier this year.

“Roots in Taiwan was a very good idea,” said Michael Budman, who co-founded the brand with childhood friend Don Green in 1973. “It was the right market, and the interest in high-quality goods is very high. I think this is the foundation of our global expansion, because Roots is now on the world stage, and we are ready for more of it.”

The brand currently has as many stores in Taiwan (105) as it does in Canada.

Branded Lifestyle senior marketing manager Tracy Lin said Taiwanese customers were first drawn to Roots during a wave of emigration to Canada in the 1990s, which boosted the awareness of Canadian brands in Taiwan.

“There were a lot of people coming back-and-forth, and it’s either people who emigrated or people who are tourists and/or visiting their relatives,” Lin said. “They started taking notice of this brand coming from Canada, and they liked the quality and the style that Roots offered.”

Because of the warmer climate, Roots and Branded Lifestyle developed clothing similar to what was being sold in Canada, but with lighter fabrics. To extend its range of offerings, Roots also sells lifestyle furniture in Taiwan, as well as operating in-store cafes.

“A cafe on-the-spot means they can take a break without circling in and out of the store to find somewhere to rest,” Lin said. “Customers want that convenience. The departure point of all our initiatives is consumer demand. Even the furniture line came from the need to design a chair for customers to sit in when they are trying on our shoes.”

Roots also has a presence in Japan and mainland China, and Budman said a new majority stakeholder in the company means the brand is set to push further into global markets based on their experience in Taiwan. (Budman and Green sold a majority in Roots to Searchlight Capital last year.)

Branded Lifestyle also holds Roots’ distribution rights for the Chinese market, and Lin said they already have stores in Shanghai and Chengdu.

Roots’ vice-president of business development Melinda McDonald, who recently returned from a visit to Taiwan, has been involved in the brand’s growth in Asia for the past two decades. She said even she was shocked at the extent of the brand’s recognition in Taiwan.

“When I was checking into the hotel, I gave the front desk my card, and the person working there immediately said, ‘Oh, I love Roots!’” McDonald said. “Our Vancouver store tells us that Taiwanese tour buses make stops at the Robson store. When this started 20 years ago, I would have never imagined something like this.”

Budman noted that Roots’ experience in Asia demonstrates what kind of opportunities, no matter how unlikely they may seem, immigration and cultural interaction can bring to Canada and Vancouver.

“Taiwan has validated a part of Roots by putting it on a global stage. And it’s good for Taiwan, too, because people are talking about Taiwan because of Roots,” he said. “I’m so proud that they connected to Roots, to Canada, to the environment, and to the beaver. Don’t forget the beaver.”