Amazon and other e-commerce giants redefine Vancouver retail scene

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      The last classical-record store in Vancouver, Sikora’s, still has a fair number of regular customers.

      As one of the owners, Ed Savenye, surveys his 3,000-square-foot palace of vinyl discs and CDs in the 400 block of West Hastings Street, he can see a couple of them looking through the containers of LPs. When one asks for help, Savenye leaps into action.

      But Savenye, who became a partner in the store with long-time employee Roger Scobie in 2001, readily acknowledged during an in-store interview with the Georgia Straight that there are fewer of these customers than in its predigital heyday.

      At the heart of his concern on this day is Amazon, a Seattle-based e-commerce giant that generated US$177.9 billion in revenue last year.

      That’s up from US$61 billion five years ago. This year, the behemoth founded by former Wall Street executive Jeff Bezos, now the richest CEO in the world, is on track to top US$200 billion in sales. Amazon’s success has had a devastating impact on booksellers and record-store owners.

      “For the sake of time and just a couple of bucks, a lot of our customer base just simply walked away,” Savenye said wistfully.

      As a result of declining sales, Sikora’s will close at the end of February after 40 years in business. It’s one of a multitude of local businesses that have been felled by rapid transformations in retail.

      Shortly before Christmas, the Comicshop at 3518 West 4th Avenue announced that it will be shutting down after 44 years in business.

      Last year, HMV Canada called it quits. Ingledew’s, a century-old Vancouver shoe business, also folded in 2017. After 82 years in business, two Umbrella Shops were shuttered. Nicole Bridger closed her eponymous Gastown clothing store, shifting to online orders and pop-up shops.

      Savenye worries that the list of local retailing fatalities will grow, undermining community connections and severing long-standing friendships between shopkeepers and their customers.

      It’s not just Amazon that’s gobbling up local shopping dollars. There are many other foreign-owned digital platforms, including Wayfair, Etsy, and Alibaba, that are having an impact on different retail sectors.

      Savenye predicted that within a couple of decades, many suburban malls will have to close—or be converted into “fulfillment centres”. That’s Amazon-speak for its massive distribution facilities, which will be increasingly reliant on robots and artificial intelligence in the years to come.

      “You’re looking at a bunch of minimum-wage monkeys running around in an Amazon warehouse packing cardboard boxes—that is the future of retail,” Savenye said. “It isn’t pretty.”

      He didn’t blame his landlord for the looming closure of Sikora’s—in fact, he had nothing but praise for the building owner’s efforts to help the store survive. Instead, Savenye focused on the “five Ds” that have eroded his business: downsizing, digitization, distribution, desertion, and demise.

      People living in smaller apartments—including empty-nesters who have downsized by selling their houses—don’t have enough space to house large record collections. The second D, digitization, has enabled former customers to download music from online sites and listen to streaming services.

      This has transformed the third D, distribution, as wholesalers focus more on these areas rather than moving physical products to stores. That, in turn, has led customers to desert Sikora’s in favour of online services.

      Finally, there’s the demise of his older customer base. He noted that if someone started visiting Sikora’s at the age of 48 back in 1979, this person would be in their late 80s today.

      “Do they even need to buy any more classical music?” Saveyne asked. “And let’s be blunt: are they still with us? Or have they passed away?”

      Amazon become too big for is Seattle campus (above), so it's opening additional headquarters in New York and Virginia.
      Joe Mabel

      Amazon talks about job creation

      He expects the rise of Amazon will lead to hollowed-out shopping districts in downtown Vancouver and along major shopping strips like Main, Commercial, South Granville, and Lonsdale. This stands in sharp contrast to the vision articulated by Alexandre Gagnon, vice president of Amazon Canada and Mexico, at a Vancouver news conference in April.

      Gagnon, a software engineer and self-described “homegrown British Columbian”, was there alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce that the company will occupy the former Canada Post office building at 349 West Georgia Street. Gagnon pointed out that Amazon already employs 6,000 workers in Canada.

      He claimed that its new Vancouver expansion will add another 3,000 high-tech positions.

      “As a Canadian, I am very proud to see Amazon creating these jobs here,” Gagnon said. “These jobs provide an opportunity for talented engineers to work on a global scale on innovative projects right here in British Columbia.”

      Amazon employs more than 560,000 people worldwide, according to last year’s annual report. Some work at its fulfillment centres in New Westminster and Delta.

      So what gives? Is Amazon stimulating the Vancouver economy or undermining it? It depends on the person’s perspective.

      Politicians like Trudeau, Premier John Horgan, and former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson seem to love Amazon. The proprietors of family-owned brick-and-mortar retailers have a tendency to loathe it. They also despise “showrooming”: the term for when a person visits a shop, takes product shots with a cellphone, and returns home to order these goods online.

      In the words of Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, the corporation may be the “most beguiling company that ever existed”.

      Vancouver retail consultant David Ian Gray told the Straight by phone that e-commerce platforms should be viewed through different lenses. He started with employment. According to B.C. Stats, there were 290,400 people employed in retail in 2017. Another 83,600 worked in wholesale last year.

      “That side of retail doesn’t get discussed as much,” he said. “But, you know, when Sears Canada goes under, there is a big effect on communities, at least in the short run.”

      He pointed out that shoppers often claim they value those local jobs and want to buy from Canadian stores.

      At the same time, Gray suggested, “they’re going crazy over Black Friday deals and complaining when retail is not on sale as much as they like.”

      Vancouver retail consultant David Ian Gray sees no apocalypse on the horizon for in-store shopping.

      He explained that this desire for the lowest price is increasing pressure on retailers to embrace artificial intelligence and automation to drive down labour costs. And that will, inevitably reduce frontline employment in this sector, which can undermine this segment of the population’s buying power. That could have the unintended effect of undermining overall sales.

      “Physical retail is not dead,” Gray insisted. “There’s no apocalypse, but there’s an incredible transformation happening—very fast.”

      Gray’s company, DIG360, and market researcher Leger recently released a survey of Black Friday sales to Canadians in 2017. Among those who bought items, 58 percent made their purchases in Canadian stores, and 55 percent bought online from Canadian websites. The survey revealed that 17 percent bought from U.S. websites and another 10 percent visited U.S. stores.

      Interestingly, more Canadians bought goods on Boxing Day than on Black Friday—22 percent to 17 percent—according to the survey.

      Gray said that between seven and 11 percent of all retail purchases in Canada (excluding automotive) are occurring online, depending on the source. To him, this indicates that the role of stores is changing and retail now has to be more of a “technology play”, even as people continue flocking to shopping districts.

      “Almost every retailer needs a core competency in technology,” Gray declared. “So while there could be staff lost at the front end of retail, from the store side of it—and the stores are getting smaller, with some more automated processes—there are other jobs opening up in retail in terms of technology and data.

      “That doesn’t mean someone at the frontlines suddenly gets a job as a data analyst, because it’s a different skill set,” he continued. “There’s a transition period.”

      This trend is evident in the appearance of self-checkout machines in London Drugs, Shoppers Drug Mart, grocery stores, and other retailers. While Amazon is seen as an online retailer, Gray noted that it has also opened more than 650 heavily automated brick-and-mortar stores in the United States. To him, it’s a sign that “the future is going to be a hybrid” between in-store and online.


      Space opens up on Robson Street 

      Commercial-leasing veteran Sherman Scott has noticed the impact of online retailing in some areas of Vancouver but not others.

      The associate vice president of Colliers International told the Straight by phone that his company has had no trouble attracting restaurants to lease space on West 2nd Avenue in Southeast False Creek. Some are being turned away because there are enough eateries. But it’s more challenging attracting conventional retail stores.

      “So we’re focusing on service-type retailers at the moment,” Scott told the Straight by phone.

      He thinks that online retailing has likely contributed to vacancies in recent years in the 1100 block of Robson Street. The Gap is one major store that abandoned this area. However, he also stated that retail is thriving in Gastown and pointed to a significant increase in luxury-oriented retail shops on nearby Alberni Street.

      According to Scott, the expansion and upgrading of Pacific Centre, including the addition of a Nordstrom store, has altered the dynamics downtown, attracting more shoppers into Cadillac Fairview’s mall.

      “They changed up the tenancies,” he said. “They’ve done a really good job.”

      He suggested that this is not only having an effect on Robson Street but is also making things more challenging for retailers in the South Granville area. Some locations have been vacant for an extended period of time.

      “Also in the last few years, we’ve just seen a massive increase in property taxes,” Scott said. “And that’s had an impact, because all that gets passed on to the tenants. I’ve seen some cases where property taxes are close to what the landlord is getting.”

      Part of the reason is the city’s policy of taxing on what could potentially be built on a site under existing zoning rather than what actually exists.

      It’s one of several issues with which Sharon Townsend, the executive director of the South Granville Business Improvement Association, and her members must grapple. She told the Straight by phone that the city government needs to stop looking at local retailers as a cash cow.

      “There’s no real road map, and…the playing field is changing so fast,” Townsend said. “And consumers are extremely fickle.”

      The owner of Diane’s Lingerie on Granville, Sharon Hayles, acknowledged that online shopping is taking a toll on some businesses. Her company has responded by creating its own e-boutique—and she said that the European brands in her store are not available on Amazon.

      “Because of the personalized service that we do, from a bra-fitting perspective, we don’t probably notice this as much as some of the other retailers,” Hayles said.

      While attending SFU's Beedie School of Business, Ali Najaf was attracted to Amazon Prime's free offer for college and university students.

      Millennials of two minds on e-commerce

      The Straight spoke to two millennial consumers with sharply different approaches to shopping. Ali Najaf, a recent grad from the SFU Beedie School of Business, said by phone that he’s signed up to Amazon Prime, which guarantees delivery in two days.

      The corporation provides free six-month memberships to college and university students, which appealed to many of his former classmates. It also offered unlimited photo storage in the cloud.

      Another millennial, Spice Radio broadcaster Safeeya Pirani, said by phone that she’s a fan of in-person shopping. That’s because she likes personal interactions with staff and being able to see what she’s buying. Pirani also expressed concerns about the reliability of e-commerce shipping.

      “I prefer having that connection to the store,” she said.

      Neither of them mentioned one of the e-commerce giants’ secret weapons: gathering information about customers’ purchases, which can be deployed to market other products to them.

      Amazon can data-mine in a variety of ways: through its Alexa voice interaction, its IMDb subsidiary, Amazon Web Services, Prime Video, and Prime Wardrobe, which was launched last year. This can force others to work with the corporation.

      “I remember when Nike said they would never play with Amazon,” Gray commented, “and yet, now they actually are on Amazon.”

      He said that e-commerce really thrives in heavily congested urban environments, such as Seoul or Tokyo, where it’s difficult to reach desired shopping destinations. That’s not such a problem in Canada.

      “We’re kind of in an ideal place for physical retail,” Gray said. “As much as we complain about traffic in Vancouver, it’s not bad.…We’re in proximity to most things we want.”

      Robert Reich, author of Saving Capitalism, wonders if the time has come to bust the monopolistic digital giants into smaller companies.
      Travis Lupick

      Authors raise antitrust issues

      But if the public takes a greater interest in the impact that e-commerce is having on the vibrancy of local communities, there could be a backlash against the e-commerce giants.

      Already in the Queens borough of New York City, there is growing outrage over Amazon’s placement of its second headquarters there. That’s because of fears it will gentrify the neighbourhood and drive up housing costs.

      In the 2015 book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, U.S. political economist Robert Reich noted that as platforms like Amazon are able to collect more data about consumers, they’re better equipped to stifle innovations from potential competitors.

      That’s why he’s argued for strengthening competition laws and busting up large tech companies that consolidate too much control over certain sectors—in effect, to save capitalism from the excesses of the modern monopolists.

      It’s something anticipated by author Stone in The Everything Store, which was released in 2013.

      “Will antitrust authorities eventually come to scrutinize Amazon and its market power?” Stone asked in his book. “Yes, I believe that is likely, because the company is growing increasingly monolithic in markets like books and electronics, and rivals have fallen by the wayside.

      “But as we have seen with the disputes over sales tax and e-book pricing, Amazon is a masterly navigator of the law and is careful to stay on the right side of it. Like Google, it benefits from the example of Microsoft’s antitrust debacle in the 1990s, which provided a powerful object lesson of how aggressive monopolistic behavior can nearly ruin a company.”

      Another lesson for Amazon: investments in government relations can pay dividends. In 2013, the corporation spent almost $3.5 million on lobbying in the United States, according to Reich’s book. As the Straight went to the printer, Amazon had four active lobbyists listed in the B.C. lobbyists registry and another 12 listed in the federal lobbyists registry.

      Back at Sikora’s Classical Music, Ed Savenye said that if online shopping keeps growing, it will contribute to a growing compartmentalization of society, fewer social interactions, and more isolation. He emphasized that it goes beyond the stereotypical image of someone in their T-shirt and underwear pointing and clicking while lounging on the couch and extends to seniors living alone, who sometimes visit stores to interact with others.

      “I’m not walking away from customers,” Savenye insisted when discussing the looming closure of his store. “I’m walking away from friends that I’ve known for 10 or 15 years. I am probably closer to many of these customers than I am to some of my own distant-branch family members. It’s sad.”

      With files from Carlito Pablo.