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‘Fashion doesn’t stop at handbags’: Montreal retailer Bentley eyes post-pandemic comeback

Luggage is seen on display at a newly-renovated Bentley store in an undated handout photo. The retailer cut its store count, upgraded its product distribution and online platform and slashed the brands and styles it sells to create a more curated, less cluttered shopping experience. Bentley/Handout/The Canadian Press

A luggage and bag store isn’t exactly top of mind during lockdowns.

So Bentley & Co. Ltd. quietly tightened operations and positioned itself for a post-pandemic comeback.

The retailer’s predecessor, Bentley Leathers Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2019. It then began cutting its store count, overhauling its online platform, upgrading its warehouse and distribution network and slashing the brands and styles it sells.

The result is a more curated, less cluttered shopping experience that blends timeless luggage styles with new candy-coloured suitcases and vegan handbags, the company said.

“Fashion doesn’t stop at handbags,” Bentley president Walter Lamothe said in an interview. “Luggage can be useful and reliable — but it can also look good and be affordable.”

The company’s streamlined operations and fresh new look appear to be paying off.

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As travel rebounded and airlines struggled with lost and delayed bags this fall, the Canadian luggage stalwart stepped up to help distressed travellers.

Its backpacks were waiting when schools reopened and its handbags and accessories were ready as office work and social outings returned.

Now the Montreal-based company plans to take its new concept outside of Canada.

Bentley is plotting an international expansion that will tap into an underserved market that hovers between high-end luxury and big box stores.

“We have not seen an affordable, approachable brand that curates travel the way we have a vision for it,” Lamothe said.

“There are high-end and low-end stores and wholesalers but you don’t have a retailer in the middle.”

Sales in the luggage and bags category have ballooned by more than 20 per cent this year as of the end of September, according to the J.C. Williams Group National Retail Bulletin and Statistics Canada.

That comes after sales jumped 34 per cent over the same time span in 2021 and dropped 27.5 per cent for the same period of 2020.

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“It speaks to the fact that people are travelling again,” said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group. “There’s a notable resurgence in smaller carry-on baggage especially as more people are trying to not check baggage.”

Bentley has big plans to meet the anticipated sales growth in the coming years.

To take its new look outside of Canada, Bentley is in talks with wholesalers to potentially start selling its private brands through other stores by 2024, with the aim of opening several stores in the U.S. and Europe shortly after.

“We have some potential partners we’re in conversation with, and the actual boots on the ground may be 2025 for the standalone stores,” Lamothe said. “But anything can happen, it depends on how successful we are.”

Click to play video: 'Pantone Colour of the Year'
Pantone Colour of the Year

Outside of Canada, the stores will be called Tracker.

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“Bentley is landlocked,” Lamothe said of the company’s store name in Canada, noting that other companies _ such as Bentley Motors Ltd. _ own the Bentley trademark outside the country.

The Tracker stores will focus on travel luggage and accessories, opening in airports to start.

The first Tracker store was launched in the Montreal airport last year, which features a vending machine outside the store with small travel accessories.

“We actually took a chip machine and turned it into an accessory seller,” Lamothe said. “We’re quite impressed it’s selling as much as it is given the store is a few feet away.”

More Tracker vending machines are planned for airports and train stations in the new year, while a second Tracker store is slated to open in Quebec City in early 2023 as a test site close to the company’s Montreal head office.

“We want to fine-tune the concept before we expand internationally,” Lamothe said.

While travel is the focus of the company’s international expansion, its Canadian stores will offer a wider selection.

Its vision is fashionable, high-quality products at affordable prices with a range of colours.

“Luggage is still mostly black and burgundy,” Lamothe said. “If you walk into our stores, we’re using the latest Pantone colours.”

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A wall of suitcases in a newly renovated Bentley store still has various shades of black and burgundy to suit the more traditional traveller. There are even variations on classic choices in hues like plum and charcoal.

Yet the store also has bright colours with cheerful names like peach, mint and raspberry and the season’s more sophisticated shades like sage, mauve and teal.

Some women ditched shoulder bags and purses during the pandemic in favour of more comfortable backpacks.

But Bentley is betting handbags will continue to be a popular choice.

“The demise of handbags would be greatly exaggerated,” Lamothe said. “The backpack is one of the staples now for sure, it’s a constant in all our collections … But if you look at what women want, there will never be enough handbags it seems.”

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To offer more selection and adapt to the concerns of some consumers, the company launched a new line of vegan products last year under the brand Riona. It gives consumers a non-leather option that’s 30 per cent cheaper than the competition, Bentley said.

Bentley has also updated its classic Pelle brand of leather bags with RFID technology, a method of radio frequency that helps prevent fraud and identity theft.

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It’s also upping its warranty. By the fall of 2023, all backpacks and handbags from its four pillar brands _ Bentley, Tracker, Pelle and Riona _ will be guaranteed against manufacturing defects for life while its luggage will be guaranteed for 10 years.

“It’s about fashion, fun and knowing that it’s not going to fall apart on you while you’re on vacation,” Lamothe said. “Luggage can be useful, affordable, reliable and look good.”

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