I decided to give our downtown a little love yesterday. I’ve been neglecting it for some time. I know it’s harder to appreciate store-to-store shopping in this weather, but there are advantages to being inconvenienced. There are the wider-reaching benefits of supporting local business… but even that seems to be shifting as retailers relocate to the large plazas in the south end where the world shops. On a personal level, however, those big plazas don’t give you the unique shopping experience of these old century buildings with their creeky floors, and exposed brick, with unique shopkeepers and their stories. Our downtown core is also our cultural and community centre. It’s where you hear about what’s going on around town, including business seminars, live music events, festivals and art crawls.
But yesterday, after taking a three-hour tour (and returning), I left with this question: why isn’t our downtown thriving?
Photo from mikey_e at virtualtourist.com, who describes downtown shopping as “interesting to walk along for a bit, but unless you’re into paraphenelia it’s unlikely to retain your interest…”
It might be that it’s March. It’s the worst time of year for most retailers, whether downtown or not. Until that sun starts shining again, people aren’t out in full force. There could be several reasons for that: vacationing, catching up from Christmas, too cozy inside to go outside… I have to keep in mind that I went out on a weekday in the middle of a snowstorm.
Does that explain the rotating FOR LEASE signs in the windows and the empty shelves inside the stores, though? Is downtown itself to blame for the lack of interest?
Here are some things that people have to contend with, when shopping downtown, which might be a hindrance:
- Parking is a hassle. You probably can’t find a convenient place to park and/or you have to pay for one. And you have to PARALLEL PARK, which brings back fear-filled memories of your Driver’s Licence Test. I’ve been known to decide not to shop downtown because of lack of parking space. Again, come the warmer months, this becomes less of an issue as it is enjoyable to walk to where you shop. The walk becomes part of the experience, especially with all the work Parks & Rec put into beautifying downtown in the spring. In winter, though, the parking sucks.
- Inconsistent hours from store-to-store. Downtown shopping usually means Saturday shopping for the average person who works 9-5, unless you plan to go straight from work to fit in shopping within half an hour to an hour. There are some people who stay open later, but you cannot expect to experience everything downtown offers when there are no guarantees if and when a store is open. You’ll see lots of handwritten Be Back in 10 Minutes signs. Even went to a store today that posted a handwritten sign in the window, closed for two days.
- More expensive. In order to support an independent retailer, you’re probably going to have to spend more money than at a big box store. That’s just the logic of economics. Buy at wholesale quantities, get wholesale prices. As a consumer, it’s harder to pay more for what you know you can get for less. As a business owner, you must make it worthwhile for the customers to pay extra, either with unique products, better customer service, or more of an experience. We will gladly pay this “Downtown Tax” if you provide at least one of these things for us.
- Hooligans. What a great word that is. What about riff-raff? There aren’t enough opportunities to use those words, except when you’re referring to downtown. Of course, I have no problem with anyone at all enjoying our downtown. It’s free and lovely space to be enjoyed. But there is something to the notion that if downtown shops share space with bars and restaurants, there is the consideration that things can get out of hand after closing time. I spoke with a shop owner last year who told me she can no longer get insurance for her display window, which has been broken so many times, her insurance company ditched her. A couple years ago, I was considering renting retail space downtown, but I was told by customers that they would have a hard time supporting the idea, especially in the evenings. I wasn’t afraid of potential hoodlums, but my customers were. Which might also attribute to the early closing times of the downtown business. If no one is coming, why remain open past 5? Actually, I’ve had an ugly experience of a man making violent and rude gestures at me and a friend when we were in a store downtown after dark. Thank goodness we were able to lock the door just before the man tried to get in. He was obviously drunk. He eventually got bored with us and left. But I didn’t feel great about having to walk to my car after that.
- Confused identity. I wonder what our downtown is trying to be. Is it a restaurant and bar district? Is it a shopping district? An arts & culture district? Something altogether different? One thing I do know is that I walked past a lot of payday loan places and convenience stores in order to find something of interest. This identity is determined by two sets of people: customers and owners of the buildings. The owners obviously want someone who can pay rent faithfully, but they have become indiscriminate about who that should be. The customers determine the identity by which stores they support. Strip clubs, loan sharks and bong stores don’t seem to have a problem garnering business downtown.
What about you? Do you feel our downtown is thriving? If not, why?