A long-time retail consultant fears for the worst for downtown retailers in Sidney as COVID-19 spreads and predicts a radically different landscape.
“When this is over, we will have to pick up the pieces and plan our downtown, because it will be like a hockey player’s mouth, with all sorts of [missing] teeth,” said Richard Talbot, president and chief executive officer of Sidney-based Talbot Consultants International Inc. Talbot can look back on four decades of consulting retailers, including every major Canadian chain.
With public health officials stressing the importance of social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19, restaurants will see significant drops in business, he said.
He made these comments as COVID-19 continued to shut down businesses, as owners closed their doors in the face of dropping demand. An informal survey of shops along Beacon Avenue found shops including Buddies Toys, 3rd Street Cafe, Bistro Suisse and Beacon Barber closed. Other businesses reduced in-person service, asked customers to contact them by email or phone, or changed delivery methods.
Talbot said retailers were already struggling before COVID-19, which will only worsen their pain, with reverberations for downtown Sidney.
“I think it’s going to be extremely serious,” he said. “Unlike downtown, we have very few major retail chains, except for the [three] grocery stores, the drug store, and to a certain extent Home Hardware. But the rest are pretty well all independent. They don’t have deep pockets and most of them are working on a minimal bottom line,” he said. “We are going into this mess in pretty shaky form, and obviously, it is the poor independents, who are going to bear the brunt of it.”
The current crisis has drawn inevitable comparisons to the recession that happened after the 2008 financial crisis, but differences exist, said Talbot. “It is to a certain extent worse than that, because the economy [as a whole] is generally in good shape,” he said. Unlike 2008, the trouble did not start in the financial sector when the banks collapsed, he added.
“This is something totally out of left field,” he said. “We can weather the storm for a bit, but the trouble is, it is going to be a huge hit for not just retailers, but also small businesses.”
Sidney, he added, will always remain the regional shopping centre for the Saanich Peninsula, supplying Sidney itself, North Saanich, and northern parts of Central Saanich. “People are still going to come in to do their shopping,” said Talbot, who predicts that Sidney’s three grocery stores and five pharmacies will continue to see business.
“During this COVID period, grocery stores and drug stores obviously are going to thrive, because you still have to buy food, you still have to buy medicine,” he said. “In fact, it almost increases [business]. But do you have buy a new pair of jeans? I don’t think so.”
Talbot predicts that the COVID-19 situation represents a “huge boon” for online shopping. “What we should be seeing is that more and more retailers, who are not yet online, should be,” he said. “If retailers are dithering about moving online, they have to do it now.”