Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Do Small-town Retailers Have Any Hope of Competing Against Online Shopping?

Stephen Vance, Editor

Small-town retail shops have had it tough for quite a while. First came large shopping malls in nearby cities, then it was the advent of the ‘big-box’ stores, and most recently the (perhaps) crushing blow to small-town retail has come from online shopping.

Many lament the loss of healthy downtown shopping districts in small towns, and some long to see a return of thriving small town shopping sectors, but is that realistic, or even possible?

With Meaford’s Stedman’s V & S retail store now closed, shopping options for residents of Meaford’s urban area have been further limited. For more than half a century the Stedman’s store was a go-to shop for Meaford residents. With a little bit of everything from kitchenware to wool socks, Stedman’s saved many trips out of town for locals shopping for basic household items.

Just a few years ago we lost our downtown grocery store after the closure of the Foodland. Then came the ultimate sale of the property to the municipality, which is currently in the midst of transforming the old building into a new library.

The closure of Stedman’s adds to the growing list of empty downtown storefronts, and with no public transportation, those living in the urban area who don’t drive are increasingly forced into shopping online.

I have often heard, whether in the council chamber or when folks stop me on the street for a chat, that there is a fear that Meaford’s downtown will ultimately be little more than a collection of offices for insurance companies and financial managers, and that could very well be the reality ahead of us.

Some suggest that small-town retail sectors should focus on niche products, or artsy shops to attract tourists. The trouble is that most folks living in small towns rarely if ever want to shop for such products, so for actual necessities, small-town residents are increasingly being forced to hop in the car for a ride to the nearest urban centre with big box stores and shopping malls, or to online shopping.

Not that a downtown area that is thriving with niche retail stores that appeal to tourists is necessarily a bad thing, but that sort of bustling downtown would look impressive on the surface, but peel back the veneer and we would still see residents unable to shop for their basic necessities in their home town.

Over the past decade I have seen council after council express a desire to focus on economic development in hopes of attracting businesses to the municipality. Progress has been slow, but that is no surprise. Meaford is competing with every other small town, desperate for some sort of economic activity, but it largely remains elusive.

Shop local campaigns have been tried over and over, though there might have been more success in those campaigns when the opponent to be bested was simply big box stores. Small towns everywhere hoped that they would be able to win back shoppers with small town warmth and service, but with online shopping, I’m not so sure that shop local campaigns will work any longer.

When people can shop from their home computers or even their phones, do small-town retailers really have a chance? We live in an era when you can stay in your pyjamas all day long while still doing your banking, renewing your auto insurance, and shopping for virtually anything. How does even the warmth and charm of small town service compete with having the entire world and all of its products inside a device that fits in your pocket?

While I too long for the return of thriving, bustling small-town shopping districts, including here in Meaford, sadly I think that ship has sailed, and perhaps we need to rethink our expectations of what a downtown core in a small town should be. We can complain about a downtown inhabited by offices for professional services, but the reality is at least rent is being paid on those spaces and they aren’t sitting empty in hopes of a creative retailer riding in on a white horse to save the day. It is simply unlikely to happen.

I think it is important for the municipality and council to remain focused on attempts to attract new businesses to the municipality, and I think it is also important to try to revive the downtown shopping area, but I think we need to be realistic and to accept that we might not see a retail revival in small towns that looks like what we recall from the past. The modern small-town shopping core is likely to be much smaller and it will likely be intermixed with offices for a range of professional services.

It is sad to say, but I fear that the convenience and savings found in online shopping has likely been the final nail in the coffin of small town retailers. The one saviour I can see would come down to security. Online security is a growing issue, and perhaps that is an angle that small-town retailers should take in their marketing – ask consumers if they really feel safe shopping online, if they feel secure that their personal information including their banking details are safe and won’t be compromised. It’s the only angle I see left for retailers to appeal to consumers in small towns.

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that consumers ultimately long for a return to in-store shopping, but I fear it might be too late.

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