Industries at a crossroad

A look ahead: The changing face of retail in Canada

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Nordstrom’s exit from the Canadian market was the most recent in a string of retail roll ups over the years. From Bed, Bath & Beyond to Future Shop to Target, high-profile closures of big box retailers have left many wondering if there is an underlying weakness in the retail market. To some degree, the public attention paid to these departures overstates their importance to the retail sector. What these stories actually reveal is not weakness, but a retail landscape in a state of change that’s not likely to stop anytime soon.  

Looking for an experience 

The advent and subsequent growth of online shopping has dramatically altered the way people shop and their expectations of retailers. In a world in which most consumer goods (and services) can be acquired with a few clicks on a smartphone, offering a good product at a reasonable price isn’t enough to stand out.  

To break away from the competition and draw people away from online purchases, a successful in-store retailer needs to differentiate itself by offering what its competitors can’t: a unique customer experience. According to the 2023 Canada Real Estate Market Outlook from CBRE, Canadian consumers prefer in-store shopping across all categories noting that consumers are “eager to engage in more lively, personalized shopping experiences that cannot be offered online.”  

Some brands have a longer history of focusing intensely on the shopping experience. Luxury stores have supplied champagne and personal shoppers for their high-value clients. High-end sporting goods stores have offered batting cages or golf simulators for customers to try out new equipment. Beauty retailers have offered makeup application to show off their product. But where such experiences were once exclusive to those catering to a wealthier clientele, the practice is spreading among retailers and into the industries supporting them.  

Building better spaces 

Commercial property managers are becoming increasingly creative in their efforts to draw visitors back to many of Canada’s largest malls by introducing new experiences. Yorkdale mall in Toronto, for instance, recently offered an interactive (and Instagram-worthy) Friends activation where visitors could take photos with some of the sitcom’s most memorable backdrops and props.  

Developers are also reconsidering how their commercial properties integrate with surrounding communities to create a more holistic environment for shoppers. For example, Oxford Properties released plans in 2020 that will turn Mississauga’s Square One shopping centre into one of Canada’s largest mixed-use developments largely by replacing under-used parking spaces with residential units, office space, and transit connections. This transformation will turn the area into a close approximation of what Victor Gruen, the creator of the modern shopping mall, had originally envisioned.   

Bridging the gap with technology  

The physical shopping experience is not only about enabling consumers to connect to brands, but also providing a seamless end-to-end experience. Technology provides the opportunity for retailers to make the in-store shopping experience more customer friendly, allowing shoppers to connect online and in-person. This omnichannel approach is intended to ensure a smooth transition from online to physical stores. For instance, having a website that allows customers to search specific stores for inventory can justify a trip to the store. Additionally, retailers will need to create technology touch points in-store from equipping staff with better technology, and tools to having point-of-sale terminals that allow for Apple or Google Pay for faster checkout.  

Still, technology has its limits. No matter how impressive the event or how amazing the environment, the customer experience depends on employees creating a connection between the brand and its customers. Online shopping and automation can deliver a product quickly and efficiently, but they can’t make customers feel important—that can only be delivered through human connection. By investing in the training and development of high-quality front-line employees, retailers can create a good impression that can lead to customer loyalty and positive reviews.  

The cost of falling behind 

With a strong e-commerce sector and new brands entering the market consistently, retail is an incredibly competitive market. To be successful, you need to innovate quickly or risk losing customers. The shopping journey presents multiple opportunities for retailers to connect to customers, create brand loyalty, and ultimately increase sales, but retailers must adapt to changing consumer behaviour to thrive now, and in the future. 

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