For local retailers, it's adapt or perish

As online sales continue to bite into the profits of bricks and mortar retailers, some businesses in the National Capital Region are focusing on unique products and personalized service as a means of setting themselves apart.

Personalized service, unique products key to surviving online juggernaut

At Preloved Ottawa, co-owner Kelly Bourada prepares to show off another piece of clothing to the store's loyal Instagram followers. (Stu Mills/CBC)

If you've noticed more vacant storefronts along this region's traditional shopping streets recently, you're not alone.

On Richmond Road in Westboro, once-coveted commercial properties opposite landmark shopping destinations like Lululemon sit empty.

On Bank Street near Slater Street, in the heart of Ottawa's office district, three doors in a row remain locked tight, a bailiff's note taped to one.

The scene is repeated in the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and the ByWard Market, where shoppers are increasingly abandoning the bricks and mortar marketplace for the one online.

"Probably the main trend is change and evolution," said Michael Mulvey, a professor at the Telfer School of Management. "Neighbourhoods are in transition."

'People see us trying on clothing so they know what it looks like on our bodies,' said Carla Bourada, left, standing beside her sister, Kelly Bourada. 'We've built really good trust with our customers.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

Getting to know you

Sisters Kelly and Carla Bourada are leading that transition, and they're doing it from a small, uninsulated outbuilding in Westboro.

Preloved Ottawa is an unconventional consignment clothing store that opened in February. The sisters find lightly used women's fashion items, then model them for their Instagram followers.

Often, the jackets, sweaters and pants are declared sold seconds after the short video has been posted.

We've built really good trust with our customers. They come in, they're like, 'I feel like I know you!'- Carla Bourada, Preloved Ottawa

"It's been a personal shopping experience for a lot of people," said Carla Bourada, who said she posts as many as 20 different pieces on any given day.

"People see us trying on clothing so they know what it looks like on our bodies. They know they are able to message us and get an immediate response," she said. "We've built really good trust with our customers. They come in, they're like, 'I feel like I know you!'"

With 60 per cent of the store's sales come through its social media account, Kelly Bourada said she can imagine a future with no physical store at all.

'I would like to think our customer is the educated consumer who wants to buy a quality piece that’s going to last them a long time,' said James Michael Brooks about his high-end leather goods. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Niche market

James Michael Brooks is also trying to set himself apart from the crowd.

In a converted three-car garage in Chelsea, Que., Brooks and several apprentices turn out limited runs of exquisite leather handbags, wallets, belts and even hand-made hockey bags.

"I would like to think our customer is the educated consumer who wants to buy a quality piece that's going to last them a long time, and they also want to buy into the idea that it's a small operation," said Brooks, who designs each item and oversees production.

Leather working tools hang from a shelf in the Chelsea, Que., workshop of James Michael Brooks. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Brooks said by keeping his operation small and staying in control of every aspect, he's been able to maintain not just the quality of his products, but their exclusivity as well.

"Otherwise, you can just go to any big box store and buy something that has been produced by the thousands," he said.

The Amazon juggernaut

The retail juggernaut that is online shopping seems like an unstoppable force. Carleton University's Ian Lee estimates the share of products purchased online could grow from the current 10 per cent to 25 per cent within five years.

Some shoppers continue to resist the trend, however, and are insisting on the personal experience. For a few, it's working.

"Stores are closing, I don't deny that," Lee observed. "But to extrapolate to, 'We're all doomed?' We're not."

The survivors in this shifting retail landscape, Lee said, will be those who offer what he calls "hand-holding" — an in-person experience with a focus on expert service, customization and the personal touch.

'We're bucking the trend,' said Eric Kunstadt as workers put the finishing touches on his family's fourth retail location. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The personal touch

Not everyone's ready to give up on bricks and mortar, however.

"We're bucking the trend," said Eric Kunstadt as carpenters put the finishing touches on the workshop area of his family's new ski and bike shop, also in Chelsea. "It's a bit scary, and we're aware of the difficulties in retail."

It's Kunstadt's fourth retail location, joining three others in Ottawa.

Kunstadt believes the expertise they offer sets his family's business apart from other retailers when it comes to resisting the online shopping trend.

"You'll only buy downhill ski boots online once," Kunstadt observed. Only experienced staff can help customers find the right fit for their size, shape and skiing ability, he said.

"The formula that has been working for us for the last 30 years has been just providing top-notch service."

The Kunstadt family's newest shop is just minutes from several popular skiing destinations in the Gatineau Hills. (Stu Mills/CBC)


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