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These Brands Offer the Best Retail Experience

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Among the deluge of gift cards and credit card bills, January is a time to reflect on the holiday season past and accumulated gifts received.

Early reports suggest retailers in Canada and the U.S. eked out modest gains this season. Observers blame looming fiscal cliffs, European debt crises and the weather for lacklustre consumer spending.

I offer an additional reason: boredom.

We live in an increasingly commoditized world where today the mobile device you buy in Dubai is identical to the one in Berlin or Toronto or even Hong Kong. Even the store environments are indistinguishable.

How to overcome the boredom factor?

Take a quick look at who's winning in retail and it becomes clear that product design and the retail environment play a very big part. Apple of course has been transformed over the past decade by design. Not just its products but also how it designs the retail experience.

In Canada a revitalized Hudson Bay Company has made inroads by introducing more design-led brands such as Top Shop clothing and Jonathan Adler stationary. And its own HBC label collection, which features an iconic design aesthetic, is slated to make up 15 per cent of the stores sales in the next three years. Target is another. As they enter into Canada, they bring with them the halo effect of the affordable contemporary design they successfully adopted in the 1980s with designer Michael Graves, among others.

To reignite retail in this country, we need a product design revolution and a re-imagination in retail thinking. This isn't about pure consumption. It's about new ideas, smart products and inspirational retail experiences. We must recognize and support good retail, independent or otherwise.

In the UK, the Harris + Hoole boutique coffee chain arrived on the scene with great fanfare. But once-loyal customers recoiled when they discovered the company is not actually an upstart, fresh-thinking independent retailer; rather, it is owned by Tesco PLC, the world's second largest grocery retailer.

Whether this makes them a "fake" is meaningless. What matters is are they innovating, creating a better product and experience for consumers, and supporting the communities where they operate.

This shift needs to also include an appreciation of and investment in creative thinking in schools. As renowned educator Sir Ken Robinson describes, the creative process is essential to our cultural, social and business success in the 21st century.

Let's do a better job of celebrating achievement in design, online and off. Amazon defined the online retail experience with a seamless welcome to checkout journey. Even their customer support line innovates, asking for your phone number and within minutes calling you, thus saving the agonizing "Your call is important to us, please hold..." scenario.

Here in Canada Joseph Mimram's Joe Fresh brand has become a billion dollar retail phenomenon by delivering everyday contemporary design at affordable prices.

Umbra, founded in Toronto more than 30 years ago takes essentials -- garbage cans, chairs, soap dishes and more -- and makes them better. Credit must surely be given for having a belief that better design solves problems, improves our lives and fosters business success. Umbra product is now sold in more than 118 countries and the company employees thousands in Canada and internationally.

That is a gift we can all appreciate.