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.