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“We had a good year,” reports Jeremy Wreford, owner of downtown business Bradshaws & Kitchen Detail.
Wreford was vocal about the potential impact the arrival of Walmart would have on the downtown, but says his business has yet to see any direct detriment since the retail chain arrived last fall.
However, he’s still wary, harbouring many of the same fears from a year ago. He wonders if those few extra empty storefronts downtown may be due to shoppers being drawn to the east end.
“Stratford has a finite number of consumers with a finite number of dollars,” he says. “When you’re talking about something like 80,000 square feet of retail space, something will be affected.”
Wreford adds that Bradshaws offers a different kind of product and shopping experience than Walmart, and therefore isn’t necessarily in direct competition.
Not so for Canadian retail chain Giant Tiger in the city’s west end. Owner Steve Vanderkuyl, who used to manage Walmarts in Hamilton and Brockville, says his business has definitely noticed an impact, although it will be a few weeks before they can compare this year’s numbers to last year’s to identify just how deep the impact goes.
Despite this, he says Giant Tigers in other communities where Walmarts have opened have normally bounced back. He even adds that Walmart could be a benefit to downtown businesses.
“People from surrounding communities who might typically drive to London and Kitchener might come to Stratford’s Walmart instead, and then go downtown,” he says.
Either way, he says businesses that cater to niche markets downtown will likely be fine. He guesses that it’ll be those that offer similar services to Walmart, like pharmacies and photo-developing, that’ll be hurt the most.
However, Theresa Ryan, co-owner at Sinclair Pharmacy, hasn’t noticed any change in her business’ prescriptions.
“But we offer a lot of services, so we’ve maintained our client base,” she says.
Ryan adds that more time will be needed before the full effect of Walmart is truly felt. However, she’s confident that the city’s thriving tourism industry will continue to bring people, many of whom live in communities with Walmarts of their own, to Stratford’s downtown, where they enjoy the warm atmospheres of the shops.
“I’m always pleased when there’s no parking downtown,” she laughs. “It means that people are here, shopping.”
Kate Carmen, manager at Carmen’s Foto Source, feels that it’s up to businesses themselves to stay relevant.
“I believe in free enterprise,” she says. “There’s always going to be competition. You’ve just got to roll with it.”
As an example, she says Carmen’s has adopted certain strategies, like price matching and more strategic advertising, in order to stay competitive.
“People assume that small downtown businesses are always going to be more expensive, but that’s just not the case.”
Nigel Howard chairs both the City Centre BIA and the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce.
“No one’s said to me that Walmart’s killing their business,” he says.
Howard was among those who, a year ago, didn’t think Walmart coming to town would be a negative. He still maintains that position.
“It’s a totally different shopping experience,” he says of shopping downtown versus Walmart. “So long as downtown merchants maintain their focus on service, I don’t see Walmart as having a negative impact.”
He adds that, if anything, having a Walmart in Stratford keeps residents from driving to Woodstock or Kitchener, ensuring local dollars stay in the community.
He does concede that Walmart has at least one advantage over the downtown: parking.
“They’ve got tons of it, and it doesn’t cost a thing,” he notes. “Whereas parking is at a premium in downtown Stratford. It’s not expensive, it’s just difficult to get a spot near the place you want to shop in.”
Overall, though, he says having Walmart in town “hasn’t been disastrous.”
“People who like to shop downtown and people who like to shop at Walmart are not necessarily the same people,” he says. “It’s a different marketplace. They’re not even really competing.”