The Future of Canadian Retail with Retail Insider’s Craig Patterson

Sep 24, 2020
4 mins | 1010 words
By: May Ning

May NingFrom local boutiques to international giants, COVID-19 has undeniably affected the world of retail. But has it just accelerated the shopping patterns we saw coming? Or has it created a new clean slate and changed the way consumers and retailers think and act?

Craig Patterson dove into these topics during Invest Ottawa’s latest Digital Main Street virtual session.

Craig Patterson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Canada’s most-read online retail industry news publication, the Retail Insider. He has over 25 years of experience in the Canadian retail landscape. He is also a director at the University of Alberta School of Retailing and a research consultant at the Retail Council of Canada. Craig’s been involved with strategy pertaining to urban revitalization in several cities, as well as retail and shopping center-related design.

This session was offered as part of Invest Ottawa’s Digital Main Street Future Proof program. These events centre around major industries like restaurant and hospitality, skilled trades, and this session’s topic – retail. Attendees gain valuable industry-relevant insight and news, connect with experts and collaborate with peers.

History sets a precedent for the future

Craig began the webinar by diving into the history of retail. He explained how what’s happened in the past builds a timeline for where we’re headed in the future. He touched on the early roots of retail in Canada as trading posts and small general retailers which transitioned into department stores. These department stores then evolved into shopping centres before the emergence of category killers like Costco arrived.

Brands gradually decided to go directly to the consumers themselves, coming out of department stores and setting up their own shops.

Then came online shopping. Online shopping was one of the biggest disruptors in retail, tackling issues like store hours, inventory, convenience, and price. Throw in social media, and you have a whole new model of retail marketing.

When the 2008 recession hit, it affected many people, but the retail world saw a boom. In fact, over 200 international retailers entered the Canadian market between 2013 and 2019.

Then, from 2018 to early 2020, Craig’s’s research identified a consumption slowdown, even before COVID-19 emerged. Consumers started getting distracted and shifted their spending towards experiences, restaurants, technology, and the rising costs of living. Canada started seeing store closures during this time.

COVID-19 comes into the picture

When the news of COVID-19 hit, physical stores began shutting down in March. Some were government-mandated, some were voluntary, but essential services like grocery stores stayed open.

Job losses were of major concern. The stock market declined, and oil prices went down, affecting the financial security of Canadians and their perception of their spending habits. Craig noted that a happy consumer will spend, not a worried one.

Rent with no revenue became an unsustainable cost for retailers leasing their spaces. In response, the Government of Canada has an online questionnaire to guide businesses on where they can go for up-to-date information and government aid.

On the flip side, some retailers thrived. Outdoor equipment, video games, and toilet paper are some of the items that saw a surged in sales, emphasizing consumer trends based on their environment.

For everyone though, we saw an incredible growth of sales through click and collect, curbside pickup, and contactless transactions amidst the pandemic. Craig confirmed that what we’re seeing is retail move into the future much faster than anticipated.

The Future of Retail

Where does all of this leave retailers?

The rate of online shopping in Canada almost doubled in two months post COVID-19. Craig pins this as habit format. As consumers become more comfortable shopping online, it is essential for retailers who aren’t already online to make the move (Digital Main Street shopHERE enables businesses by setting up their online shop).

Tech adoption, both in-store and behind the scenes, is coming into play. Tech companies are introducing innovative tools for retailers. One such company is Ottawa/Gatineau region’s very own Foko Retail.

Creative experiences are crucial to grabbing consumer attention. Retailers are not competing with other retailers anymore, they’re competing for people’s attention. Decades past, retail was entertainment. Craig shares the examples of Christmas windows and thanksgiving parades. Today, social media and influencer marketing are tools to create or showcase experiences. Using these platforms and tactics to reach potential customers will help future-proof businesses.

The upcoming holiday season will be different from previous years. According to Craig, some retailers are considering deeper discounts for a longer period of time. SEO and reaching out to existing customers directly will be key to standing out this holiday season.

The supply chain is also something for businesses and consumers alike to think about. For simple products, this may not be as much of an issue, but for more complex items like bicycles, there may be a delay in fulfilment.

Delivery platforms like ShipperBee can help regional companies satisfy Canadian consumers who are now used to the ever-increasing convenience and speed of shipping. Holding inventory in Amazon’s growing number of fulfilment centres is also an option.

Being a consumer society, retail is very much a part of our lives. It is the largest private-sector employer in the country and an economic generator. Millions of jobs are either directly or indirectly serving retail such as construction, cleaning companies, brokers, and more. – Craig Patterson

Help for businesses is available

Right now, Digital Main Street is helping small businesses impacted by COVID-19 in Eastern Ontario to recover and grow. Through the Digital Main Street Future Proof Program, qualified applicants (restaurant, retail shops, skilled trades, and home-based businesses) can access their own digital squad, business advisors, and training resources – for free.

You might need to build or improve your online e-commerce system to grow revenue. Create promo videos or take high-end photos for Instagram ads. Attract customers back with digital marketing campaigns. Whatever it is, our team can help.

Apply today and access personalized digital marketing services and more. Did we mention that it’s completely free?

A image of a business owner working on the computer. The copy reads, "Helping you sell online and build a future-proof business. Cost free. Learn more and apply." The graphic includes the Invest Ottawa and Digital Main Street logos.


About the author 

May Ning is a Digital Marketing Coordinator for the Digital Main Street program at Invest Ottawa. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce with a specialization in Marketing from the University of Ottawa and runs her own marketing company. May is passionate about helping small businesses grow and supporting local. She also loves to travel, read/write, design, and embark on new adventures.

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