Friday, December 29, 2006

Is Squamish the blue print for Rupert’s Big Box dreams?

There’s an interesting story in the Vancouver Sun about the recent debate over Big Box stores in the Squamish area. A debate that ended with a big box shopping plaza arriving on the scene and the customers that go with it following.

It seems to parallel the recent debate in Prince Rupert over the Shopping Village planned for the Highway 16 area, and might help shed a little light on how one community has handled the increased competition for the small town local stores.

There are quite a few observations made in it that seem to answer many of the questions locals had over the Shopping Village process here in town. It’s a good bit of research work for us, done for a town with similar concerns and structure as our own.

Big box comes to Squamish
Home Depot, Wal-Mart drawing customers from Whistler, Lillooet

Brian Morton
Vancouver Sun
Thursday, December 28, 2006

It's 9 a.m. in Squamish's brand new big-box shopping plaza, but already the parking lot is starting to fill up.

A month ago, Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores opened in the Squamish Business Park and traffic has been steadily growing ever since.

But it's not just Squamish residents who are making the trek to the biggest retail offering in the town's history. Shoppers from Whistler, Pemberton and even Lillooet are travelling down Highway 99, helping make Squamish a shopping hub for the area. This trend will likely accelerate as Highway 99 is widened in time for the 2010 Olympics, making the highway trip both safer and quicker.

But, unlike other towns where similar big-box stores have hurt businesses in struggling downtowns, the big-box stores in Squamish may actually be breathing new life into the town's urban core.

As well, Squamish's two big-box stores, which feature peaked roofs with timber and stone accents, appear more attractive than other similar big-box stores in the Lower Mainland -- a testament, perhaps, to higher design standards promoted by Squamish council over the past four or five years.

"I find it's a positive thing," said Daniel Gloor, owner of the funky Sunflower Bakery Cafe in downtown Squamish. His shop was packed with customers lining up for breads, muffins and specialty coffees Wednesday afternoon. "Once they [Whistler residents] are here, they come in for coffee or lunch. We're busy like crazy."

Gloor said this time of year is normally quiet, but now that's not the case -- especially since the big-box stores opened. "I'm sure others are hurting, but that [big-box has been a plus] is our opinion."

George Chang, owner of Kitchen Corner, a high-end specialty cookware store in downtown Squamish, agreed.

"It's all been good, actually," Chang said in an interview. "As long as you don't go head to head with [Wal-Mart or Home Depot], you're fine. We're seeing a dramatic change in the number of clients from Whistler, who we have never seen before. And Home Depot is sending customers to us if they don't have [the product]. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Unlike other municipalities in the Lower Mainland, Squamish is farther away from Vancouver, and has fewer shopping options. On weekends, many local shoppers leave Squamish, heading to North Shore stores where they invariably run into their neighbours.

Those weekend jaunts may become less frequent.

"Business is great," said Campbell McDonald, general manager of Squamish's new Home Depot. "The community has been outstanding in the way they've received us. And we're getting customers from Whistler, Pemberton and beyond. We were also able to staff our positions without too much trouble. We're blown away by the high quality of our staff."

Wal-Mart is also doing well, but unlike Home Depot, there was plenty of opposition by local residents to the big-box retailer, opposition that is still evident in the community.

"I'll shop at Home Depot if locally owned businesses don't have what I'm looking for," said Lauren Fraser, who was at Home Depot Wednesday. "But I won't shop there," she said, pointing at Wal-Mart. "I don't see them giving back to the community. They pay low wages, from what I understand. I like the little stores."

Shannon Johnson, a Squamish resident who was shopping at Kitchen Corner Wednesday, is also unimpressed. "I don't go to Wal-Mart. I don't like their business practices. I like to support people who live here, rather than an American company that just wants to profit off of us."
However, Keith Klips disagreed, saying he's happy to shop at Wal-Mart. "I don't have a problem as long as the service is okay. We had to drive 40 miles to do our shopping. This is retaining people here."

Whistler resident Rae McDonald has made three trips to Squamish since the big-box stores opened. She shops at both Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

"We think this is awesome. We have nothing like this in Whistler. And the pricing is good."
McDonald said her family usually buys other things at other smaller Squamish stores when they make the trip. "When people utilize these [big-box] stores, they go to other stores as well. We go for lunch and dinner when we're here."

However, other stores that are in direct competition with the big boxes are noticing an impact.
"It's slowed down a bit, but it's not as bad as we thought," said Home Hardware assistant manager Morgan Price. "Our prices are competitive and people are starting to return. We're in no danger of closing."

Patricia Zuffa, assistant manager of Fields department store, said she's seeing people return to Fields after trying out Wal-Mart. "We've got pretty faithful customers."

Local newspaper columnist Helmut Manzl, who likes shopping at Wal-Mart, said he believes the big-box stores will be "enormously" successful. "From what I'm seeing, downtown has to get its act together. The downtown needs niche marketing."

Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland said it is still early, but he hopes the big-box stores and other new stores opening in Squamish will keep local residents in the community.

"We've had a big loss of retail dollars out of the community," said Sutherland. "The habit is still to go to the North Shore, but more and more people are coming around. The challenge is that once they head to Capilano Mall and Park Royal, they do all their shopping there.

"Hopefully, this [new shopping options] will also help the downtown area do better."

Dave Fenn, a former Squamish councillor who voted in favour of the new Wal-Mart, said council supported the project to make Squamish a regional hub for the Sea to Sky corridor. He also said the town had to stop "bleeding" shoppers who drive to North and West Vancouver.

Fenn, who owns the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Co. in downtown Squamish, said he's already noticed more customers at his restaurant and pub from Whistler and Pemberton who drove down to the big-box stores.

"There's been traffic from there [Whistler] coming down for the big shop. We've had overnight traffic here, too.

"I think it will have a beneficial effect as long as the downtown core does its part in improving the retail experience."

Other recent retail additions in Squamish include Rona, the Brick, and the Whistler/Blackcomb outlet store.

Meanwhile, plans are proceeding on the Parallax Development, a 100,000-square-foot retail complex that would be built beside the new Wal-Mart.

"Our project is now in a zoning application," project partner Sean Languedoc said Wednesday. "It is a comprehensive mix of larger and smaller stores, including a large pharmacy like London Drugs and smaller stores like Sport Mart, Reitmans and other fashion stores. There would also be some factory outlet stores, and possibly a hotel."

Languedoc said the complex, which would be built in stages over four or five years, is planned to open in the spring or fall of 2008.

He said the project wouldn't affect downtown Squamish because it would include national brand retailers that would not locate in the downtown core.

A Wal-Mart representative could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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