Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Rather than take a wait and see approach, independent retailers in Stratford are being encouraged to start now when it comes to distancing themselves from their new corporate competitors.
But don’t take that as a sign downtown business owners fear the impact big box stores Walmart and Target will have on their bottom lines.
“I’ve been asked many times if I’m worried, and my answer has always been no,” Jackie Catania, owner of Treasures and chair of the Stratford City Centre Committee, says. “I really think it’s a chance for us to shine, to show people what we do that’s different, that makes us stand apart.”
Both stores are scheduled to open in the east end of Stratford in late fall ahead of the Christmas season, Target in the former Zellers location and Walmart on Ontario Street.
According to media reports, Target has gained momentum in the domestic marketplace, with brand awareness hitting 92 per cent in 2012, compared to about 70 per cent in 2011 when the Minneapolis-based company first announced its plans to expand into Canada.
Walmart Canada, meanwhile, saw overall sales rise 6.1 per cent during the first quarter of 2013 amid its own cross-country expansion as it braces for Target’s full introduction into the marketplace.
During presentations to business leaders in Stratford and St. Marys last month, retail consultant Pierre Cliche forecasted the two discount retailers will do at least $20 million in sales annually once established.
But Catania says that money doesn’t have to come directly from the pockets of downtown merchants, who rather than fret about not being able to match their competitors’ prices due to limited buying power should be using the opportunity to refine their own customer service experience.
“We stand apart from Walmart and Target and all the big box stores by the service, by the knowledge we have,” she adds, noting in her store, for instance, she knows every detail about each product, including where it was made.
Nigel Howard agrees that small retailers have a distinct advantage over the big chains.
The general manager of the Perth Community Futures Development Corporation and Stratford-Perth Centre for Business, which provide business coaching, financing, and expansion planning, says consumers want a certain level of service they often don’t get at big box stores, where they might have to search for staff only to be directed to an aisle.
“This is where you can beat the box stores,” he adds. “Knock their socks off with customer service.”
Howard says now is a good time for merchants to review all aspects of their store, including the frequency in which window displays are changed and the hours of the operation.
He suggests if any stores aren’t open seven days a week now might be a good time to start.
“If they continue like that, you can believe Walmart and Target are going to be open seven days a week. (The business owners) have to look at that – can they afford to not be open?”
Catania also believes downtown business owners need to be more flexible with their hours, especially on Friday evenings, where an extra hour or two would benefit local residents.
Right now, hours in the downtown vary. Some open 9 a.m to 6 p.m. while others operate from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
As the head of the City Centre Committee, which has a mandate to maintain an active and viable downtown core, Catania is also encouraging those members who close on Mondays – typically a quieter day due to Stratford Festival having no shows – to reconsider.
She says the City Centre has tried in the past to coordinate hours with its retailers but for a variety of reasons hasn’t worked. Trying to get all merchants on the same operating schedule might not be realistic given their small staff numbers and other commitments away from work, she adds.
Catania says local stores can differentiate themselves in other ways, like offering simple services like gift wrapping and deliveries to a customer’s B&B or hotel, both of which she offers at her store.
Even the smallest thing like making sure the store front is clean and well kept can make a difference, she adds, though she notes most downtown merchants already do an excellent job in this area.
“Downtown people do care about their business because it’s there livelihood,” she adds.
Catania and Howard note the tourist season in Stratford has been better than expected this year, with sales surpassing totals from this time last year, something they attribute in part to a well-received playbill from the Festival.
Howard says local business owners should also experience increased demand over the holiday shopping season as fewer people leave the city to shop at the nearest Walmart or Target.
In the past, people would visit Woodstock or Kitchener for a Walmart and end up shopping at other local stores. But now all of that money will stay in the community, he adds.