Monday, April 18, 2011

What's in a name? New Westminster's retail mix

While driving home a few days ago I saw some workers pounding in a few new signs at the corner of the outlet mall in Queensborough. "Coming soon! The Gap!! and Banana Republic!!!"
My first reaction was to get excited because, like all North Americans, I've been trained to salivate at the sight of shiny brand names. My second was to think, "Hmm, maybe if I start dieting now, I can actually fit into some Gap and Banana Republic clothes by the time the stores open." (Hey, I'm sharing my thoughts here. Some of them are stupid.)

It got me thinking about the ideal retail mix for New Westminster. North Americans are trained to salivate at the sight of brand names. But when New Westminster gets big chain stores, they are choosing to locate mainly in the island of outlet stores anchored by Wal-mart in Queensborough. There's nothing really cool, nothing really local or independent. New West's other shopping areas are mostly absent of many big name chains.

The question is, would a few "big" names in other parts of New West help out the existing locally owned, independent stores? There's some evidence this works, at least for coffee. It's called the Starbucks Effect. Essentially, Starbucks revived interest in coffee and gave the public a taste for expensive, premium coffee, which was good not just for Starbucks, but for anyone selling coffee.

A store called Red Brick just opened on 6th St. at Carnarvon. It features a funky mix of modern home furnishings and eclectic accessories, such as salad servers with twig handles and oversized vintage (or vintage-look) clocks. I have to confess though, when I walked in to check out the store, I felt a pang of fear. It's exactly the kind of store New West needs; it's exactly the kind of store that has trouble staying alive in New West. Would it be more successful if there was a chain store nearby? An Urban Barn perhaps?

But I wouldn't want New West to ever have a retail landscape like Robson Street's, despite its popularity. I'm old enough to remember all the character Robson St. used to have when it was still called Robsonstrasse and young enough to remember scoring drinks while underage in several places along it. Robson Street's location and all the foot traffic that location brings meant rents skyrocketed, until only the biggest companies with the deepest pockets could afford stores on Robson. It now has all the character of a suburban mall. A glossy, upscale mall, but a mall nonetheless.

New Westminster has, in Columbia Street, the kind of downtown main street urban planners go crazy for. We have what other cities are willing to pay money to try to recreate. Just take a look at this story about Surrey and Mayor Diane Watts talking about the importance of town centres.

New Westminster is lucky, we don't have to build Fakey Town like they did at Park Royal Mall. I hope for a funky future for New West's shopping areas, less like Robson St. and more like Commercial Drive, which last time I checked has very few big chain stores, (unless you consider Ten Thousand Villages a big chain). 

Screw the brand names. Let New Westminster and its retailers make a name for themselves.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Special Spend Report: Shop Small, Save Big

During the month of February I didn't shop at any major chain grocery stores. I did all my shopping at smaller grocery stores. I assumed prices would be crazy expensive and that my monthly grocery bill would skyrocket. I was wrong.
So, where did I buy my groceries?

I shopped at:
Probably the best deal I found was black forest ham for just .99 cents/100 grams at the Holland Shopping Centre, which has a deli. (That seems to be the regular price for it.) Safeway's was $1.79/100 g.
I did most of my grocery shopping at Donald's Market. I found that on produce and regular priced items, Donald's was very competitive with Safeway, which is where I usually do my big grocery shops.

For example: 
  • Philadelphia soft cream cheese: $4.49 at both Safeway and Donald's.
  • Bananas were .79 cents/lb. at both Safeway and Donald's.
Some items were cheaper at Donald's, like Eggo Waffles, which are $2.99 at Donald's, but $3.29 at Safeway.

It is hard though to beat the big stores' sale prices: Safeway sells Eggo waffles on sale for $2. I bought a big box of Froot Loops at Donald's for $6.49; the same box at Safeway is regular priced at $7.11, but on sale, it's just $4.99.

It was tough to find a deal on milk. I'm used to paying about $4.50 for 4 litres. It was a lot more expensive at Uptown Market—$5.99 for 4 litres—and a bit more expensive at Donald's—$4.99 for 4 litres. And the wonderful glass bottles of Avalon Dairy milk are way more expensive, I think about $2.99 for 2 litres.

But sometimes it's worth it to pay for the quality. That's what I found at Queen's Park Butcher, where I got a pound of ground beef that cost about $1 more per pound than at Safeway. But there was such a noticeable difference in quality, I know I'll go back. When I cooked up the ground beef and went to drain off the grease, there was nothing to drain off. Not that it was entirely fat-free, but there was not enough to drain.

Was there any cheating? You bet. My husband made a couple of morning runs to the nearby Price Smart for milk. I felt a wee bit bad about this, but while Price Smart is part of a big chain, it's a B.C. chain. Plus the store near our house is always being threatened with closure so I always feel good when I shop there because if it closes pretty much the only place to buy milk near our house will be Wal-mart.

Other than avoiding big chains, I did make one other big switch to my shopping habits in February: I meal planned. Every Sunday, I figured out what we already had in the fridge, freezer, and pantry and I planned my meals around that. Instead of buying things I thought we might need, I was buying only the specific items I knew we would.

According to one blogger, after she started meal planning, her grocery bill was cut in half. Mine didn't go that low, but I did spend less, and I did use up way more of what I had in my pantry, fridge and freezer.

In total, I spent about $380 on groceries in the month of February. In January, I spent just over $450.

I have to admit that after February I pretty much reverted back to my old grocery shopping habits and I've abandoned meal planning. That's something I want to start doing again.

I'm also hoping to make my way back to the smaller stores on a more regular basis especially now that I know I can get:
  • reasonably priced ground turkey at Uptown Market;
  • great meat at Queen's Park Butcher; and
  • a made-in-Vancouver laundry detergent at Donald's Market that is formulated for this area's soft water and is priced comparably to big name detergent brands.