There has been so much change that’s occurred throughout the retail industry as a result of the pandemic that it’s boggling for most to comprehend, even among those who have experienced the impact firsthand. The disruptive and unsettling nature of the effects of COVID-19 have forced pivots and shifts, accelerated numerous trends and consumer behaviours and has elicited a reaction from the industry, a response to the ways the consumer wants to shop and engage with their favourite brands. To do so during such tumultuous and uncertain times is proving to be a monumental task for most operating within the industry, let alone for small businesses across the country that are without the human and capital resources of the bigger players. And, according to John Kiru, Founder of Digital Main Street and Executive Director at Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, the heightened challenges and needs of Canada’s small business community presents an opportunity for municipal legislation to change and for BIAs to play an even more important role in the communities and neighbourhoods that they serve.
“We’re currently working with legislation that’s fundamentally 50 years old,” he says. “It was nearly a half century ago when the Municipal Act allowed municipalities to established Business Improvement Areas, and it hasn’t changed much in that time. And when you match that against the way things have developed around us in just about every single way, there’s definitely an opportunity for BIAs to become more involved – involvement that will be supported by a proper review of the legislation that governs what BIAs can and can’t do. It’ll hopefully prompt a wholesome discussion concerning the ways BIAs feel they can contribute to the health and wellbeing of their communities and lead to amendments to legislation to allow for more progressive thinking.”
Significance of the collective
Traditionally, since the world’s very first BIA was formed in Toronto’s Bloor West Village in 1970, the most significant aspect of their existence, explains Kiru, is the fact that they represent a collective effort within a given geographic area to which everyone contributes towards the economic and social wellbeing of that area.
“As an independent retailer, without this type of organization, your marketing dollars only go so far,” he says. “But when you can collect fees through a BIA, it allows the merchants in that area to hire someone to execute on marketing or advocacy and develop a plan that might be out of the reach of most small businesses. If the BIA does its job, then it becomes a bit of a self-help mechanism for independent merchants who contribute above and beyond their taxes to the collective with the knowledge that all of that money is going to go back into that community and be spent in that community. Essentially, with rising tides, all boats are lifted.”
Opportunities for BIAs
Without such a collective, Kiru suggests that many small businesses would, removed from their own doing and effort, fall by the retail wayside. But, as important as their introduction was 50 years ago, a lot has changed within the country since the inception of the idea of the BIA. And, combined with the unfortunate and challenging circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 global pandemic, the ways in which a BIA could help support the efforts of their local business community are numerous and immense.
“There will be a lot of real estate vacancies in a post-pandemic world,” Kiru points out. “And so, how do BIAs become engaged to ensure that those vacancies are filled? Perhaps its through a retail mix strategy, which shopping centre landlords are really good at formulating, where they place a number of shoes stores, apparel stores, jewellery stores and the like in an area because they know that it causes a natural flow. BIAs and main streets traditionally don’t apply that wisdom. If a neighbourhood were to follow a similar kind of retail mix strategy, they have the opportunity to turn their community of shops into a destination that draws people in from the outside, generating traffic for every retailer within that area.”
Reimagination and reinvention
He goes on to explain that these types of pointed retail strategies go a long way toward strengthening and enhancing the retail experience that an area offers to customers, resulting in footfall that retailers will be desperate to command over the course of the next 6 to 12 months and beyond. He says that, moving forward, perhaps the biggest challenge and opportunity for retailers on main streets across the country is going to be not only getting people to visit their neighbourhoods, but to bring them back multiple times through the week and month, presenting BIAs everywhere with a chance to meaningfully shape the future of their local economies.
“These are obviously extremely unique times that retailers are experiencing,” he recognizes. “It presents all merchants with huge challenges to overcome. But it also provides opportunities for BIAs representing main streets across Canada to reimagine what they do, the services they provide and the overall benefit that they deliver for their members. They need to be creative in attracting visitors from further afield than they’re used to and to leverage the tourism sector to entice people to come in and experience the local community, highlighting the uniqueness of that community and the diversity of voices and offerings. I’ve always said that in Toronto, you can experience the world in a culinary sense in seven days without a passport. It’s in this kind of way that the efforts of BIAs can be really significant in supporting local and regional economies as well as helping to boost tourism.”
With or without the help and bolstering of BIAs, however, Kiru admits that it’s going to be a tough road ahead for many small and independent merchants across the country. He emphasizes the need to remain resilient and urges Canadian entrepreneurs to continue with their efforts as we approach what is hopefully the end of a very long pandemic period. And, with respect to the things that small business owners can do for themselves to further their endeavours, he says that now is a better time than ever to rethink, retool and reimagine in order to reinvigorate their communities and local economies.
“Going forward, recovery and merchants’ efforts to achieve it will be a significant focus. And they’ve got to take time to reimagine their business. Prior to COVID, there was a need to digitize and to transition brick-and-mortar to brick-and-clicks. Less than ten years ago, in fact, Amazon started to really move in and make an impact, and consumer habits and behaviours were changing. in response, small businesses needed to adjust and enhance their online and ecommerce presence and offering. However, brick-and-mortar is such a strong component of any neighbourhood, and its importance to those areas they serve will not diminish any time soon. And anything that BIAs can do to bring forward the value of main street businesses and attract interest in their offering will be critical in ensuring a recovery for the Canadian small business community and continued success in the future.”