Army and Navy, 101-year-old Canadian discount retailer, to close permanently under COVID-19

Click to play video: 'Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic'
Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic
Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic – May 9, 2020

A 101-year-old retail icon in B.C. and Alberta is closing permanently due to financial pressures from COVID-19.

Army & Navy closed its department stores “temporarily” in March due to the pandemic.

But in a statement Saturday, president and CEO Jacqui Cohen said while the company had hoped to reopen, “the economic challenges of COVID-19 have proven insurmountable.”

“I am full of gratitude for our staff and their years of service, our suppliers with whom we forged decades-long relationships, and of course our loyal customers who were at the heart of our business,” said Cohen.

“It is hard to comprehend. This time last year we were celebrating the centenary of Army & Navy — a company my grandfather started in 1919 — and we were looking forward to the years ahead. Now we are closing a company that was at the heart of eight communities in western Canada over its 101 years.”

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Click to play video: 'Squire Barnes on the 100th anniversary of the Army & Navy stores'
Squire Barnes on the 100th anniversary of the Army & Navy stores

Cohen said she will spend the coming weeks ensuring the company’s staff “have our support.”

The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), the union representing workers at two Army & Navy locations, said 83 members — some who have worked for the company for decades — have been issued layoff notices.

“All the signs and all the indications were that the business was viable and there was no concern of news like this, so that makes it all the more shocking to everybody,” said CLAC spokesperson Ryan Bruce.

Last week, Cohen told Business in Vancouver the chain was looking at a “bloodbath” as it sat on a stockpile of spring merchandise ordered before the pandemic saw most retailers close.

David Ian Gray, principle with national retail advisory company DIG 360, said the end of Army & Navy will be a blow to lower income shoppers, as well as to the city’s cultural fabric.

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“I think they had the fortune of having fully paid for prime real estate that didn’t really have to be on the books like with other retailers, but retail is a much tougher, more complicated business today than it was 10, 20 years ago, let alone 50 or 100, so I wasn’t totally surprised,” he said.

“But it’s also a sad day because when we lose iconic streetfront retail like that it’s not only the store, it’s part of the community, it is part of the story of the evolution of a city.”

Click to play video: 'How the COVID-19 pandemic could change the retail industry'
How the COVID-19 pandemic could change the retail industry

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry commented on the closure Saturday, saying she sympathized with struggling business owners.

“Our best defence against the economic impact is to control the virus,” said Henry, saying businesses will be hurt worse if the the province is forced to return to lockdown measures.

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“That is why it is so important for us to keep doing what we’re doing, to get this virus under control, and to keep those measures on over the coming week, so we’re not going back to the type of gatherings we were before, we’re not allowing this virus to take off again.”

Army & Navy was founded in 1919 by Samuel Cohen, who parlayed a thriving trade in post-war military surplus into a discount department store chain.

The company currently has locations in Vancouver, the home of its flagship East Hastings Street store, New Westminster, Langley, Calgary and Edmonton.

Along with its low prices, Army & Navy is particularly known for its annual shoe sales, which have historically drawn long lineups.

With files from Julia Foy

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