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Pundits love trends

In this month's column, Marty Williams, of the Downtown Guelph Business Association, says the game isn't over for bricks and mortar retailers
Bookshelf blue sky

As the old saying goes, it’s difficult to make predictions – especially about the future. And yet pundits continue to pontificate; they love trends. They watch something emerge and boldly predict the future based on the assumption that what goes up will never come down. 

We see this in the world of retail, where Amazon is kicking the stuffing out of bricks and mortar stores. It seems sure that the future is all about drones to doors, all about surfing and clicking. The decline and fall of many retail giants (most recently Sears, but before that Zellers, Woolworths and Eaton’s — not to mention the arrival and quick retreat of Target, or the sell-off of retail assets by mall-owning behemoths RioCan) makes it easy to predict that on-line shopping will crush traditional methods.

The trend line shows that it has already won the war.

Game over. 

Except, of course, that it’s not. Not by a long chalk. 

Consider if you will, the case of bookstores and grocery stores. Both of these categories were early targets of on-line platforms. Amazon started in books (it used to have the tagline “the world’s largest bookstore). But even after all this time, with so much ease and such ability to discount, even in 2016 more books were bought in person than online

For some of us, nothing can replace holding a potential book purchase in your hands. The tactile stimuli — its lightness or heft, the rough or smooth sensation of paper across your fingers, the smell of the ink — these all contribute to the book buying decision. Some shopping may be dreary, but for most of us, spending time in a bookstore is pure joy. In Downtown Guelph, that’s great news for the Bookshelf. They are a beloved institution, and the many readings, author signings, and writing-related community events they sponsor would evaporate without the support of book lovers who choose to spend their money where it does the most good. 

How about groceries? Well it’s even more skewed there: fewer than one per cent of Canadians’ total food purchasing happens online (Americans buy three per cent online; in the U.K. it’s four per cent). A story in the Toronto Star says that Sylvain Charlebois, the dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University in Halifax, anticipates Canadians will purchase about 10 per cent of their food online within the next 10 or 15 years. But he would be surprised if it ever surpassed that. “A lot of people want to go into a store,” he said. “We’re social beasts. We want to interact. We want to touch.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the matter: delivery services like Grocery Gateway have been around for twenty years but ninety-nine percent of us choose to buy food in person at real stores. It fulfils a deep-seated human desire.

In Downtown Guelph, independently owned and operated stores are building community through good food and the irreplaceably great experience you get from a family-owned-and-operated business. Market Fresh stocks brands the chains don’t, including local food products and produce that can’t get shelf space at the big stores. Dutch Toko, has been a destination for speciality imports since 1959, and they have items you won’t see anywhere else in Guelph.  Add to this the (relatively) new kids on the food block, Trotters Butcher Shop and Charcuterie on Cork Street (locally sourced meat and a “nose to tail approach”), and I think it’s safe to say that there is still lots of demand for bricks and mortar food stores, especially ones that can deliver the difference. 

With expert service, personal interaction, conversations, and establishing of relationships – not to mention the fun of bumping into friends and neighbours – Downtown Guelph has an abundance of what on-line can never and will never replace. Retail and restaurants in traditional shopping districts can survive and thrive by doing what they do best. Amazon delivers packages, sure, but Downtown Guelph delivers an experience, a human connection, and real civic life. 

That might not show up on a trend line, or grab the headlines, but it is — in its own way — extraordinary and certainly worth celebrating. 

Marty Williams, Executive Director, Downtown Guelph Business Association

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