The Future of Shopping in Post-Pandemic Calgary

Bricks-and-mortar stores will evolve into “customer experience spaces” that integrate a brand’s physical store with its online shop.

Illustration by Mateusz Napieralski.

According to retail experts (and everyone who has been exclusively shopping online since March 2020) the pandemic has rocked the industrial model of retail by accelerating its digital transition. “In the digital era, media is no longer something [brands] buy to push people to distribution, media is the store,” says Doug Stephens, founder of the consulting firm Retail Prophet. “If a consumer sees your ad on Instagram, that’s the store — you can buy directly from it.”

So, what will actual stores, and therefore malls and retail areas of Calgary, look like in the future?

“I think we’re going to start to see more and more retailers that make every aspect of their store, from the moment [we] walk in, a much more clickable, scannable environment,” Stephens says. Brands will need to focus on transforming their bricks-and-mortar stores, whether freestanding or within a shopping centre, from a place to browse and purchase, into visually appealing interactive spaces offering one-of-a-kind experiences. “[Retailers are] going to have to create really remarkable content to keep their consumers engaged with their brand and that’s something that’s foreign to a lot of small businesses, especially,” Stephens says.

He predicts that with technology like QR codes that customers can scan for information, pricing and purchasing, only a select group of expert staff with extensive product knowledge and customer service skills will serve clients.

None of these are new predictions or new forces pushing the retail transformation. The pandemic just accelerated the timelines.

“The fundamentals of retailing don’t change: you’ve got to have compelling product, you’ve got to be remarkable,” says Michael LeBlanc, a senior retail advisor for the Retail Council of Canada. “There’s going to be a renaissance in our cities and towns and suburbs, because when millions of people are working from homes, the retailers and service providers will all start to adjust where they are and say, ‘I’m going to go where the people are,’” says LeBlanc.

The Victoria Park Business Improvement Area (BIA) is anticipating those same trends, priming its streets and sidewalks with inviting art and light shows creating unique experiences to entice shoppers, while helping retailers adjust for the future. “You will never replace that physical in-person experience,” says David Low, executive director of Victoria Park BIA. “You will get replaced though, if you’re not doing a good job of it.”

Some stores might need to transform more than others to become distribution points or fulfillment centres, depending on the products and commodities they offer. Malls have been traditionally reticent to allow tenants to operate as fulfillment centres, says Darryl Schmidt, vice president of leasing for Cadillac Fairview (owners of CF Market Mall and CF Chinook Centre). But he predicts shopping malls will evolve into mixed-use centres and incorporate more flexible and creative leasing terms. “It’s going to be a live-work-play environment, with enhanced dining and service facilities over and above the already great shopping amenities that are there,” he says.

Schmidt and Low agree that whether in malls or neighborhoods, landlords will have to get creative with their leases to help new business owners secure storefronts and ensure physical stores remain in Calgary. You can expect to see more pop-ups, shared or smaller spaces and creativity to attract and retain retailers and shoppers.

“It’s a great thing to bring in those independents and locals, try to incubate them into longer-term tenancies and provide a real sense of community and local flavor to each one of our shopping centers,” Schmidt says.

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This article appears in the April 2021 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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