It’s easy for local residents to take the cluster of snowboard and ski stores for granted along West 4th Avenue, because they’ve been around for so long. Few Vancouverites realize that it’s the largest such grouping anywhere in Canada. And their remarkable success offers intriguing insights into why Greater Vancouver has emerged as one of the most vibrant street-oriented retail regions in North America.
Just east of Burrard Street, there are several shops selling snowboards, skis, skateboards, and gear: Comor and its sister company Pacific Boarder, the Boardroom and its sister Billabong, and Showcase.
Holding a snowboard on the northeast corner of West 4th and Burrard, Comor manager Brian Michals tells the Georgia Straight that not even Toronto, Calgary, or cities in Quebec can match Vancouver’s concentration of ski- and snowboard-related outlets.
“We’ve got the most buying power in Canada on this block,” he declares. “Toronto would be second to that.”
One of the pioneers on the street was Murray Fraser, who opened the Boardroom in 1987 at the corner of Pine Street and West 4th, just as the sport of snowboarding was taking off. He relocated a few years later to a larger location just east of Burrard; now, the Boardroom and Billabong offer 12,000 square feet of retail space.
The Boardroom’s general manager of retail, Pear (he only goes by one name), tells the Straight over the phone that this part of town is “almost like your auto mall of snowboards”.
“If you’re a snowboarder, you can pretty much get anything you want in this block,” he says.
One of the early entrants was Pacific Boarder. Another large local player was Westbeach, which fell victim to the competition earlier this year.
Pear says that his company has succeeded by recognizing and adapting to changing market trends. That has meant keeping an eye on the competition rather than living in some sort of bubble.
“I don’t want to paint a picture that we’re all colluding together, because we’re not,” Pear insists. “We’re competitors. The consumer, at the end of it, often benefits because the price is competitive to anywhere else because we keep each other honest.”
Concentration of companies boosts performance
More than two decades ago, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter pioneered the concept of clusters, which are geographic concentrations of companies and their suppliers and service providers in certain industries. A classic example was the proliferation of advertising agencies along Madison Avenue in New York.
According to Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, clusters enhance productivity, better enabling companies to compete.
“For example, clusters may not simply reduce the cost of production but the cost of exchange, by enhancing trading relationships and the transparency of local input and output markets,” Porter, along with Temple University’s Mercedes Delgado and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scott Stern, wrote in March 2011 paper. “The impact of local knowledge spillovers likely does not simply accrue to a single firm in an isolated way; rather, related local discoveries may simultaneously enhance the knowledge base of multiple local firms.”
Over time, snowboard and ski shops may not form the only cluster in this area of West 4th Avenue. Go one block west into the 1800 block, and there are two bicycle retailers, Dizzy Cycles and Mighty Riders.
Meanwhile, a new Different Bikes outlet recently opened further east, not far from the new No Frills supermarket at the corner of Pine and West 4th. They’re two of 28 new store openings in the 1700 to 2300 blocks of West 4th Avenue since the start of the year.
Lease rates cheaper than malls
But cluster theory isn’t all that explains why many shops on this retail strip are surviving and even thriving in a tough economy. Retail consultant Richard Wozny, principal of Site Economics Ltd., tells the Straight by phone that storefront retail is very strong in this region in comparison to other cities in Canada and the U.S.
That’s because there are relatively fewer malls in Greater Vancouver.
He also points out that running a business on a busy street is usually more cost-efficient than leasing space in a shopping centre, where retail tenants are responsible for covering cost of space shared by everyone.
“Sometimes, it can be 30 percent of the rent, whereas on the street, the common-area maintenance is very low,” Wozny says. “You’re not looking after a big parking lot and internal mall corridors.”
West 4th Avenue retail leases for between $30 to $60 per square foot, depending on the location along the strip. On Robson Street, according to Wozny, rates can rise to $200 per square foot.
Because there are cheaper rents in Kitsilano, it creates more opportunities for a greater variety of locally owned stores. He suggests that this is particularly true along West 4th Avenue, which is far enough from downtown and the Oakridge mall to be shielded from too much competition.
“There’s constant, ongoing population growth, even in the completely developed West Side,” Wozny emphasizes. “So [West] 4th Avenue is a unique and exciting shopping area, which will steadily maintain its market position against new competition, such as the Nordstrom that will come to downtown Vancouver.…People who will lose in competition with Nordstrom are other malls.”
One of the prime attractions of West 4th Avenue, he says, is convenience. The area around Vine and Yew streets includes Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Shoppers Drug Mart, coffee and tea shops, and bread, produce, and meat stores.
But Wozny also notes that creative concepts can do well along a street like West 4th Avenue, citing a confectionary store called the Candy Aisle as one such example. Another one of those innovative stores is the baby store Crocodile, which is owned by Gerry and Cristina Lewarne.
West 4th Avenue is home to local businesses
In an interview inside their 2,200-square-foot outlet between Arbutus and Yew streets, Gerry Lewarne explains that his Brazilian-born wife previously owned a successful toy store in São Paulo and used do to volunteer work with children in the favelas.
In Brazil, he says, people talk of “creating a child” rather than “bringing up” a kid. The store is centred around this philosophy.
“Everything we sell is based on a healthy, modern, organic parenting aesthetic that we have,” he says. “We think you should buy products to make for healthy babies.”
Lewarne, a former banker, is proud that he and his wife were among the very first in Vancouver to advance the notion that it’s not healthy to leave a baby in a car seat for a long time. He advocates laying the infant down or carrying the baby in a way that ensures interaction with the caregiver.
The couple also refuses to sell Baby Einstein DVDs, citing research by the University of Washington’s Patricia Kuhl noting that infants learn language best from listening to human beings, not machines.
He also worries that plastic mattresses may emit volatile organic compounds, which could have an impact on young children.
“We want people to buy mattresses made of organic materials,” he says.
The 2100 block of West 4th Avenue may have its own cluster of stores for expectant and new moms. There’s already Motherhood Maternity and Hip Baby. After a tour of Crocodile, Lewarne and the irrepressible Russ Davies, executive director of the Kitsilano 4th Avenue Business Association, take the Straight on a stroll down the street.
Lewarne points to lululemon on the north side as another company that started with a new idea and a great deal of passion.
“They’re very excited about what they do,” he says.
In the next block, they enter Briers, which is owned by David Issar and Cherie Schuman. He sells furniture on the second floor, whereas she oversees the boutique on the ground floor. Issar tells the Straight that the couple is opening a new 3,200-square-foot furniture store across the street in the old Book Warehouse location. The existing site will only sell leather furniture, he says.
“Kitsilano is young, urban, and it’s not super high-end,” Issar says, noting that people in this neighbourhood won’t pay $5,000 for a couch.
Davies explains that West 4th Avenue’s strong categories are fashion, outdoor, home, and specialty stores. He mentions the pop-up shop Paboom and Cowboys and Angels, a toy store and ceramics studio, as two new retailers in the burgeoning “home-category” precinct.
Further down, closer to Burrard, health-oriented businesses are on the ascendancy. A new YYoga sits atop a new TD Canada Trust.
The former Videomatica video store has been taken over by the Vital Wellness Group. And Davies notes that Pharmasave next door may knock out the eastern wall of its store so it can expand.
In addition, there are more than 40 restaurants in the area bounded by Fir and Balsam streets. And style-oriented salons like the Bombay Brow Bar and Stripped Ladies & Gents Wax Bar are bringing a little bit of a Yaletown feel to the area.
Experiential retailing on the rise
Davies says one of the newer trends is “experiential retailing”, where people enter a store to be entertained or to learn something new. He cites the recently opened O5 Rare Tea Bar near Yew Street as a prime example.
“It’s a little bit of theatre, and it’s exciting,” he says.
One of the partners, the somewhat exuberant Pedro Villalon, is a multilingual native of Mexico City who also worked as an advertising executive for Pantene hair products in China.
During his time in Asia, he travelled extensively, pursuing his passion for tea.
Standing behind the counter in the wood-panelled room, he draws a comparison between family-owned tea operations in China and South Korea to the family-owned vineyards in France.
“Some of the tea harvests are 10 kilograms per year, some are maybe 30, some maybe 80,” he says. “Compared to industrial production, it’s minimal.”
The self-described tea hunter emphasizes that he seeks out the very best to bring to his customers in Kitsilano. Over the next few minutes, he serves up several blends from a countertop tea station that includes handcrafted pots—no boiling water in stainless steel here—with one tea poured into a goblet and another delivered in a big bowl.
“This is not one of those pretentious places where people use their pinky fingers to hold the queen’s cup,” Villalon quips.
O5 Rare Tea Bar is open late into the evening, offering an after-dinner experience for those who dine at local restaurants. In particular, Villalon praises John Bishop, the owner of nearby Bishop's restaurant, for referring customers his way.
Davies says that the arrival of O5 Rare Tea Bar and the reopening of Bimini Public House are providing more night-time energy to the street. And the opening of Fable Restaurant reinforces West 4th Avenue's reputation as a destination for fine dining.
Two years ago, the business association launched the successful Khatsahlano! Music + Arts Festival, which has showcased dozens of musicians. Davies says that a survey of residents in the area indicated a desire for more options for having fun at night in the area.
"One of the things the people said is they wanted to stay in Kitsilano," Davies says. "They didn't want to get in a bus or a taxi and go downtown to have something to entertain them."
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.