Getting out to local stores is a reminder that goods, services are also about livelihoods
Aspoiler alert for my husband: your Father’s Day gift was made in Mexico, from material that came from the United States. The image on it was printed in Canada, and I got it at the Montreal store YUL Designs.
Its multinational origins show the limitations of the exercise I was engaging in on Boulevard Saint-Laurent this week, as I made an effort to support the creators and retailers in Canada’s most stylish city. But the point wasn’t just to buy things – I was also there to chat with salespeople and restaurant servers and contribute to the ongoing vibrancy of a historic street.
In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s disinclination to play nice on trade issues, there’s been much talk of boycotting his country’s goods in return. That take is understandable, but born out of spite, and, in such a gloomy climate, I’m reluctant to make shopping less fun. It seemed more optimistic to seek out things that felt good to buy, so since I’m visiting Montreal this month, I took a walk through Mile End.
I browsed at stores such as Boutique Unicorn, Electric Kidz and Mercantile Clark, all offering cute, covetable goods by Quebec designers.
There was a clear effort to showcase things made locally with local materials, such as at Lowell, which specializes in beautiful bags made of recycled fur and cow’s leather from Canada (and, okay, the United States).
Labels such as Valérie Dumaine, Jennifer Glasgow and Betina Lou pop up again and again, showing that owners aren’t avoiding labels carried by other nearby sellers. That friendliness is a breath of fresh air and a smart approach: Seeing neighbours as collaborators rather than competitors is important for bricks-and-mortar entrepreneurs if they want to survive.
Montreal’s retail industry pulls in $40-billion annually, but boutique owners here are facing a “perfect storm” of difficulties, says Guy Cormier, president and chief executive officer of Mouvement Desjardins. Those include international issues, such as the consumer shift to online shopping, and local ones, such as infrastructure projects creating a construction mess that keeps customers off the streets.
Since April, Mr. Cormier has been chairing an advisory committee on the city’s commercial development plan. Last Monday, it presented city council with a report full of what Mr. Cormier believes are realistic, easy-to-implement ideas for helping retailers, especially little momand-pops.
These include immediate property tax relief for commercial buildings worth $500,000 or less, a tactic aimed specifically at helping smallbusiness owners, not the large chains dotting Sainte-Catherine. “They don’t necessarily need the same kind of help from the city as the smaller retailers who are on Laurier Street, on Wellington Street, on St. Laurent Street or St. Denis Street,” Mr. Cormier said.
By Wednesday, Mayor Valérie Plante had agreed to implement one of the group’s suggestions, making Montreal Canada’s first municipality to reimburse merchants for losses owing to construction.
The city is going to put aside $25-million for payments up to $30,000 for a single business, which will be retroactive from the beginning of 2016 and go through 2021.
Although his main task was to get government help, Mr. Cormier acknowledged the need for entrepreneurs to rise to the challenge. He’s spoken to neighbourhood business associations about throwing street fairs and other events that draw a crowd, working together to create destinations that draw shoppers outside and away from multinationals’ websites.
Consumers clearly have a part to play as well and there’s a long list of reasons to support bricksand-mortar shopping.
One is the growing ecological footprint of online shopping, from increased vehicle emissions – owing to home delivery of individual items by large trucks – to excess packaging, such as those plastic air bubbles that are inexplicably tucked around even sturdy items, such as hardcover books.
And while locally made goods do often cost more, consider the many scandals currently being handled by Amazon, which sells 43 per cent of everything bought online. The world’s biggest online retailer has been accused of suppressing unions in Germany, violating labour laws in China and creating such a hostile work environment that packers in its Britain warehouses fear taking their legally allowed bathroom breaks – huge inventories, low prices and free shipping come with hidden costs.
The continent-wide construction of my husband’s present shows the limitations of local shopping, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile endeavour. Getting out on the street is a reminder that goods and services are also about livelihoods and community, not to mention humanity, which we could use a little more of right now.
People walk along Rue St-Paul in the Old Port of Montreal in 2016. Montreal’s retail industry pulls in $40-billion annually, but boutique owners in the city are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of difficulties, says Guy Cormier, president and chief executive officer of Mouvement Desjardins.