You’ve got to be strategic and take actions that will, collectively, make you stand out.
That’s the approach adopted by Empire, an independent Quebec-based chain and leading provider of board sports equipment and accessories.
In the early 1990s, the board sports community was pretty much underserved. That’s why my partners Philippe Grisé and Frédéric-Pierre Antoine started Empire.
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Purpose that brings people together
Empire opened in 1999, in Sainte-Julie, Quebec. The store quickly became a haven for board sports enthusiasts – the best brands, an impressive inventory and, above all, staff members who were handpicked for their love and knowledge of a discipline channelling an entire generation’s need to be daring and make a statement.
“That’s important to us,” Fortin said. “It’s part of Empire’s DNA, and we’re proud of that.”
Empire’s value proposition is clear: Boarders feel understood and well served.
The success of Empire’s first brick-and-mortar store quickly led to another in Boucherville that was closer to the metropolitan area, followed by more locations in Quebec. Today, the brand has 11 physical outlets across the province, as well as an online store.
“The move to digital has increased competition. As leaders in the independent sector, we need to meet the expectations of our customers, especially skaters and snowboarders who can’t get to our physical stores,” said Fortin, who takes pride to grow and improve Empire’s online offer.
Empire has continued to set the standard for board sports, becoming an industry powerhouse.
Small group of diehards
What people don’t know is that under its big-box look, Empire is run by a small team.
“For us, it’s not the number of people that matters. It’s how passionate and energetic they are,” Fortin said. “At first, the team behind our online store had fewer than 5 people, orders came in fast, and we made sure we processed and delivered them within 48 hours.”
Today, about 20 people work behind the scenes of ThinkEmpire.com. The site carries more than 500 brands, including those leading the industry. More than 80% of purchases are shipped the next day, free of charge.
Empire’s facilities have been specifically set up to manage and process online orders, and the digital platform is connected to the inventory of all 11 physical stores. The pace of orders is fast, so the company is making significant investments to build an inventory dedicated to online sales, offer same-day delivery and reach skateboard and snowboard enthusiasts across the country. This flurry of activity is spearheaded by just a handful of diehards who are determined to expand their niche market and build strong customer relationships.
Gen Z and Millennials make up most of Empire’s customer base, but the brand also serves Gen Xers who started gearing up at Empire at an early age. The team is proud of their customer loyalty – living proof of Empire’s vision of creating a community united by a passion for a fringe sport.
Times are changing, and Empire is on board. Through its social media presence, blog posts on skateboard parks, event sponsorships, product reviews and tutorials about different tricks and more, Empire knows that communication is key to maintaining customer loyalty and brand awareness.
A study commissioned by Canada Post in 2022 showed that Gen Z is increasingly influencing consumption patterns among older generations. The tastes and values of Gen Z consumers are drawing in customers who might have never considered either board sports or the Empire brand.
That same study also expanded on the influence of sustainable practices in the shopping behaviour of Canadians. Fortin has noticed that consciousness among Empire’s young markets and staff. In fact, recycling shipping boxes and reducing plastic material are quite organic in the company. They are also studying the possibility of using compostable envelopes and having their packages delivered by electric vehicles.
“Our customers and staff are part of a generation conscious of their environmental impact. The question to be part of the movement didn’t arise, we were already and naturally into it. It’s also a value we consider when making a business decision,” Fortin said.
To support its growth, Empire is consciously joining forces with partners who can amplify the company’s value proposition.
Empire’s ecommerce is powered by Shopify Plus. The technology enables visibility on all channels and provides the features customers want, like an availability and location search tool, shipping options and fees displayed before checkout as well as a quick and easy payment process.
Canada Post’s reputation and extensive network provide support to customers living in remote areas, and our secure points of call, like parcel lockers, help drive online purchases, especially for people living in apartment buildings.
“Our clients trust Canada Post, and for many, they are the company of choice for delivering their online orders.”
Breaking new ground
Regardless of how big Empire’s operations team is, the company’s purpose is an unequalled strength that drives its ambition.
Our mission is to continue sharing our passion for board sports in Canada and around the world.
Empire plans to open stores outside Quebec, and the company is intensifying its social media presence and content. “Our efforts have paid off: our customers believe in us. They know we can do great things, and that adds fuel to our fire.”
- To create a customer experience that builds loyalty, stay in tune with your market.
- Surround yourself with a team of motivated people who believe in the company’s purpose, and success will follow.
- Don’t follow the crowd. Be agile and create a movement of your own that meets the needs of your target market and helps you achieve your goals.
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