Epilogue: Malls, Marketing and Main Street

Epilogue: Malls, Marketing and Main Street McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Winter 2000-2001 > Epilogue: Malls, Marketing and Main Street
Malls, Marketing and Main Street

All McGill graduates have memories of St. Catherine Street below the campus in downtown Montreal. It was here, as students, they found the large department stores, the grand movie houses, their bank branches and numerous shops, bars and restaurants.

Regardless of the time of day or night, there were always plenty, often crowds, of pedestrians on the street -- even on Sundays when all the shops were closed.

For most of the twentieth century St. Catherine Street remained pretty much the same -- until the 1990s and the arrival of new modes of merchandising. The pedestrians are still there, but the character of the street has changed.

Three of the four major department stores no longer exist -- at least not in their original form. Ogilvy's has been transformed into an upscale shopping centre. Simpson's is now part clothing store and part entertainment centre. Eaton's has closed. Only the Bay (née Morgan's) remains.

Those large, lavishly decorated movie houses on the south side of the street, with such elegant names as the Palace and Loews, have closed or been chopped into "multiplexes." The banks have all but disappeared. The buildings remain but they now house everything from shoe stores to cell phone companies. Many of the unique, locally owned and operated shops have disappeared, replaced by chains such as the Gap and Timberland.

Giant music stores and mega-bookstores, complete with in-house coffee shops, have appeared. Video game arcades and strip joints have joined the restaurants along the south side of the street. Open late, they ensure packed sidewalks well into the night.

Photo PHOTO: Diana Grier Ayton

Elsewhere in North America, change came earlier to downtown shopping thoroughfares, and in most cases, the result has been disastrous. Rather than being left with changed but still vibrant streets, most cities have seen these areas virtually abandoned by retailers.

Beginning in the 1960s, shoppers were lured from downtown and neighbourhood shopping streets to malls in the suburbs. By the 1970s, the larger regional malls built on highways beyond the suburbs were luring shoppers away from the original malls. In the 1980s, downtown areas abandoned by shoppers offered land assembly opportunities and the ability to build large enclosed upscale shopping centres.

Surprisingly, throughout these turbulent decades in retail history, St. Catherine Street, between Ogilvy's and the Bay, managed to prosper, although many neighbourhood shopping streets in Montreal suffered. Can St. Catherine Street maintain its vibrancy and will our neighbourhood shopping streets return to prosperity? A number of factors suggest that the answer is yes.

One powerful argument for such confidence is demographics. The greatest population shift in the next few years will be in the 40 to 55 age group -- the baby-boomers -- and the over-75s. In their twenties and thirties the boomers were price-conscious and fueled the flight to the malls and, in particular, the big-box retail outlets. But now they've become time-conscious and tend to place other factors before price. They are more apt to shop closer to home in stores that emphasize quality and friendly service. The Wal-Mart greeter will be no match for the neighbourhood shop owner who knows customers by name.

Another factor is growing unrest among suburbanites about the impact of regional shopping centres and big-box retail outlets on their lives. These mega-outlets, originally located far from residential neighbourhoods, now find themselves surrounded by houses. Irritated by the traffic generated by these outlets, residents fiercely fight more retail development in their vicinity. Understanding that shoppers are developing a reluctance to drive any further out of town to shop, big-box retailers are opting to locate back downtown. Expect stores such as Toys R Us to appear on St. Catherine Street in the not too distant future.

What about the impact of e-commerce? The percentage of people who shop via the Internet will remain relatively small. Part of the reason has to do with access to computers, but an equally important factor is that for many, shopping is an important element in their social and recreational life. Sadly, for too many, the trip to the grocery store provides the only social contacts in their day.

For those convinced that Inter-net shopping will garner a far more significant portion of sales, a look at how people view movies should be informative. With the advent of television, people stayed home and watched movies broadcast by the networks. Business at movie theatres suffered. When technology allowed us to view videos at home, rental shops such as Blockbuster blossomed and more movie theatres closed. How then can we explain the opening in the 1990s of so many new entertainment centres containing, besides arcades, numerous movie theatres?

It's clear that people have tired of the isolation of watching movies in their basements and are coming out of their cocoons. Along St. Catherine Street an entertainment centre -- the Paramount -- has opened in the former Simpson's and soon another much larger one will open in the legendary Montreal Forum.

These recent trends in marketing and retail strategies are encouraging for our neighbourhood shopping streets. The end result will be a revival that will not only benefit the shop owners and developers but also the community, particularly those who value and depend on the social experiences associated with a vibrant shopping street.

The trends will also allow St. Catherine Street to maintain its liveliness and provide future McGill graduates with memories.

Derek Drummond is Macdonald Professor of Architecture and Vice-Principal, Development and Alumni Relations, at McGill.

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