Surviving the draw of urban retail

Downtown shopping in Winnipeg has its pros and cons

Dropping sales in downtown malls like Portage Place have experts predicting a return to small-store shopping. Mark Reimer

The city centre was once Winnipeg’s retail hub; many shoppers now gravitate toward suburban big-box power centres.

“People can live in the suburbs and not even come downtown anymore, so downtown has sort of lost that hierarchical pull,” said Brian Lorch, retail geographer and professor at Lakehead University.

While boasting a 92 per cent occupancy rate, Portage Place has suffered significant losses in the recent past, including McNally Robinson Booksellers’ move to Polo Park.

Sales have been falling at Portage Place, but not because of its central location, said Nancy Chappell-Pollack, the mall’s marketing co-ordinator.

“It’s a tough year for all retail,” she said.

Though traffic hasn’t significantly decreased, harsh economic times have shop owners lowering sale prices and visitors avoiding shopping altogether, she said.

But some shoppers remain loyal to Portage Place.

“It’s so convenient, it’s close to us,” said shopper Jose Gapit.

You don’t see the whole spectrum here, the upper end has disappeared.

Brian Lorch, Lakehead University

According to Gapit, lots of shoppers prefer downtown due to the surrounding amenities and accessible transit routes. The only thing the downtown doesn’t offer is a Wal-Mart, he said. Peter Curpen, owner of City Jewellers, enjoys his spot in Portage Place mall, explaining that his store is constantly busy because of the repair service they provide in addition to sales.

“It was a very good experience moving into the mall,” he said of his store’s move from Main Street years ago. “It was like day and night.”

While Chappell-Pollack cites female professionals from 35 to 54 as Portage Place’s target shopper, professor Lorch sees evidence of a different trend.

“You don’t see the whole spectrum here,” he said of downtown retail. “The upper end has disappeared.”

Lorch said that to cater to a local population with less disposable income while also increasing city-wide appeal, Winnipeg’s core needs more unique retailers to draw in reluctant shoppers from the suburbs.

But according to Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, the city centre already has many unique shops to cater to a niche market, like eco-friendly retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op.

Downtown also offers a more diverse atmosphere than big-box lots, he said.

“Turn your shopping trip more into a day trip with your kids,” Grande suggested. “Downtown’s more about an experience than it is just about pure shopping.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 15, 2009)

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