Local retail locations like Uptown reported a strong Christmas season, but changes are looming.                                Wolf Depner/News Staff

Local retail locations like Uptown reported a strong Christmas season, but changes are looming. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Saanich retailers say holiday season was strong

No figures are available yet, but anecdotal evidence points to a strong Christmas season for local retailers. But challenges loom beyond the immediate hustle and bustle of the season.

Kristy Lowes, marketing director for Uptown, described the 2017 Christmas retail season as “very good” with the proviso that statistics will not be available until the new year. The season started with Black Friday, then slowed down in the week after Black Friday, before picking up again as Christmas approached, she said.

“For us, it was definitely busy,” said Jennifer Voltolina, who currently manages Uptown’s North Face retail outline, the only of its kind on Vancouver Island.

For the outlet, it was the first Christmas season. While not as established as the outlets in Vancouver, the location drew a steady stream of customers, said Voltolina, who has been in the retail business for 20 years.

Looking at the larger picture, David Ian Gray, a retail consultant, said anecdotal evidence points towards a “mixed” season overall that actually speaks to large uncertainties in the Canadian retail industry as it grapples with pending cultural, economic and technological changes.

As various reviews have pointed out, 2017 will go down in retail history as the year in which Sears Canada collapsed, leaving behind a giant hole in the Canadian retail landscape that has also impacted the Greater Victoria region.

The iconic chain, deeply woven into Canadian history and culture, had already gone through various restructurings prior to its collapse, and the demise of Sears’ Hillside location on the border between Victoria and Saanich caused the loss of 110 jobs. Opened in 1969, it was the last remaining Sears location in Greater Victoria.

Gray said a loss of this sort can have serious knock-on effects for retailers in malls and the larger communal and commercial web in which they exist.

He also foresees larger cultural changes, as the days of large malls relying on vehicle traffic might be coming to end. People are increasingly less willingly to drive great distances to shop, he said.

This change is happening against the continued rise of online shopping. One survey heading into the Christmas season predicted that 65 per cent of Canadians would be shopping online for gifts this year – up from 55 per cent who said they would be shopping online in 2016.

Perhaps the most obvious proof of this development appears in the number of actual parcels that Canada Post or private carriers have delivered over Christmas. While final figures will not be available for a few weeks, Canada Post announced earlier that it was expecting a record year for deliveries thanks to a 20 per cent increase. By the third week of December, Canada Post had delivered 65 million parcels for the year.

Gray acknowledged the growing importance of online retailing. Buyers now increasingly use computers to compare and contrast between products, thereby undermining traditional window shopping, he said. But he also cautioned against high expectations and fanciful predictions of drones delivering parcels. Some reports point to logistical difficulties over this Christmas season, he said. He also noted the bulk of actual sales both in numbers and dollar values take place in physical stores.

Voltolina speaks to this point. Customers want the physical experience, she said. “They want to look. They want to touch.”

Overall, Gray finds that retail is changing very quickly these days. The predictability of the past is gone. Business models are evolving, and retailers should not hitch their businesses to any specific technology, in light of variability, he said. Retailers should remain flexible, he said. They should also stay abreast of larger economic changes, since many Canadian retail outlets house American companies, he said. He also pointed that the economic climate might not be as strong as it appears.

Gray, a West-Coast based consultant familiar with Uptown, said outlets like it have a chance, if they remain adaptive.

“Uptown is a pretty good concept,” he said. “They have some good tenants. For the moment, they are doing well.”

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