Major Ottawa malls in ‘comeback’ mode as holiday season approaches

Buoyed by new tenants and other attractions, regional shopping centres like Bayshore and Rideau Centre predict strong finish to 2019
O'Hoski
Rideau Centre GM Brian O’Hoski. Photo by Mark Holleron

Brian O’Hoski’s voice suggests it’s not only kids who get excited about new Lego as Christmas approaches.

The general manager of the Rideau Centre's giddiness revolves around Ottawa’s first store dedicated to the iconic children’s building blocks. Recently making its debut across from the Disney Store at the downtown shopping mall in early November, the Lego Store and a coming-soon Nike store are among several Ottawa firsts for the Rideau Centre this year.

“We’ve added a lot of new brands for Ottawa over the course of 2019,” O’Hoski says, listing the Levi’s store, Australian body-care merchandiser Aesop and Turkish luxury men’s fashion retailer Damat Tween among the mall’s other new tenants this year. “Our loading dock is just crazy right now.”

Already Canada’s fourth-busiest shopping centre with more than 25 million visitors a year, the Rideau Centre expects those numbers to grow even further with the recent arrival of the new light-rail system that delivers passengers right to its door. About 60,000 commuters funnel through the Rideau Centre every workday, traffic that helps the mall generate a hefty sales-per-square-foot rate of more than $1,000 annually, one of the top figures in the country.

Now, with the Confederation Line finally up and running – albeit with a bumpy start – and the busy holiday season rapidly approaching, O’Hoski is expecting big things for the 2019 retail rush.

“That’s music to a retailer’s ears ​– people and money,” he says. “I think it’s only up from here, to be honest. I think it’s going to be a really good (holiday) year.”

Canadian consumers are expected to shell out an average of just under $1,600 this holiday season, according to a recent report from accounting firm PwC Canada, up about two per cent from 2018. Ottawa retailers are also likely to see a bit of a bump in overall sales in the frantic final two months of the year, says local industry analyst Barry Nabatian, thanks in part to a favourable federal election outcome.

A shift to the Conservatives – who vowed to cut the amount of federally leased office space in Ottawa by 30 per cent – would have almost certainly sparked a sense of unease in a city where six in 10 employees either work directly for the government or in a related field such as health care, Nabatian says. 

But with the Liberals maintaining their grip on power, Ottawa consumers will likely feel a little more confident about opening their wallets this holiday season, he suggests.

“I think that economically speaking, especially about retail spending, it’s a sigh of relief for the vast majority,” says Nabatian, the director of market research at Shore-Tanner & Associates.

Based on his conversations with local businesspeople, Nabatian said he heard significant concern that a Conservative government would’ve hurt business confidence, which would in turn lead to job cuts and lower consumer spending. 

But a Liberal minority will likely mean business as usual in the nation’s capital.

“I think that we can expect a reasonably good – not excellent, but a reasonably good – retail sector the rest of this year and the Christmas season,” he said.

A few kilometres west of downtown at the Bayshore Shopping Centre, general manager Denis Pelletier says he’s feeling “pretty confident” the mall’s patrons will be in the mood to spend over the next two months.

“We think that we’ve got a (retail) mix that people want,” says Pelletier, adding that while traffic tends to slow down during elections, he expects to end 2019 on a high note.

“It has been one of the best things about this market is that it is a very stable market,” he says. “Now that the decision is made and we know what we’re dealing with, people are just gonna move on.”

New technology

Pelletier says the retail plaza has stepped up its efforts to target tech-savvy shoppers through promotions such as last spring’s 1970s-themed “Heart Melt Motel” experience aimed at creating an “Instagrammable” attraction for visitors as well as a new app that lets users access the mall’s directory on their smartphones. 

The recent addition of new tenants such as Saje Natural Wellness and Purdys Chocolatier to a roster that already includes big names such as Apple, Hudson’s Bay and Roots will give consumers even more reason to head to the mall during the pre-Christmas rush, he adds. 

Visitor traffic is up about two per cent over 2018, Pelletier says, while average sales have jumped almost five per cent year-over-year to about $800 per square foot. 

“If we ended there by the end of the year, I think we’d be very pleased with those results,” he says.

Downtown at the Rideau Centre, O’Hoski says his property is also looking at new ways at making itself more of a pre-Christmas destination in the e-commerce era. The mall is moving its Santa’s chair to a larger area in front of Simons on the third floor, for example, and a series of DJs will be performing every Thursday night near Nordstrom on level two starting in mid-November.

Nabatian says that although smaller community malls are in a fight for survival as consumers increasingly turn to online commerce, large regional shopping centres such as Bayshore and the Rideau Centre are experiencing a renaissance.

“It seems that (major) shopping centres are seeing a bit of a comeback,” he explains. “People want to go there for fun, for window shopping, to meet people.”

O’Hoski couldn’t agree more.

“We’re in really good shape,” he says.