Will the offline shoppers return? Two ‘destination’ retailers hope so

Seasons
Lorilee Reynen, owner of Seasons of Westport, found the uncertainty and inconsistency of the pandemic "very stressful," but she took advantage of the opportunity to open an online store. Photo by the Leeds and Grenville Economic Development Office.

As much as the online world of retail is enticing, it can’t replace the joys of a road trip and an old-fashioned shopping experience.  

This is especially true for two retailers in Eastern Ontario — Kilborn’s on the Rideau, a department store in Newboro, and Seasons of Westport, a boutique selling women’s fashion and accessories.

One is a destination store, while the other is in a destination town. 

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“Kilborn’s is an experience,” asserts Doug McCallum, general manager. “That’s the brand — that’s the whole thing — is coming out and experiencing the store itself and shopping and it’s just as much a social outing as it is a shopping outing.”

The words “department store” might be the first clue as to what sets Kilborn’s apart. Having opened 16 years ago in a modest space in the old village grocery shop, Kilborn’s grew into an extensive store with three buildings, two driveways and many levels, selling a variety of items from fashions and footwear to furniture.

Meanwhile, Seasons of Westport relies heavily on tourists and cottagers who like to dally in the popular village. “We are a destination town,” says Lorilee Reynen, owner of Seasons. 

So, what to do when a global pandemic forces almost everything online and the “destination” — whether town or store — is no longer desirable? The two retailers took somewhat different approaches to the problem. 

Kilborn's

Kilborn’s continued its online presence on Facebook, but chose not to create an online store. Seasons, on the other hand, dove into the online world, especially when Reynen started receiving free business development program offers.

“I signed up for everything, my calendar was full,” she laughs, “and then I applied for the digital transformation grant, which I got, that was $2,500, but the real benefit of it was it signed me up for ShopHere and I had one-on-one training to look after my website.” 

Until then, Reynen had paid a third party to populate and maintain her website, which she says was simply not cost-effective. By learning how to maintain her own site, Reynen has expanded shopping options for her customers. Her clientele still prefers walking into her store, but they seem to like the option of browsing online before visiting and only shopping online if they don’t want to or can’t make the trip.

Meanwhile, Kilborn’s, with its 25,000 square feet of retail space, opted to stay the course and open whenever lockdowns were lifted. McCallum explains that they took advantage of the closures to rearrange the store and make it safer for staff and customers. 

“Kilborn’s was open at 25 per cent capacity, so that’s about 60 people — it’s a big place.  But we removed an enormous amount of stock to create more floor space to enable people to distance properly,” McCallum explains.

Still, the pandemic took quite a bite out of Kilborn’s revenues, dropping sales by half. There was just so much uncertainty and anxiety that, even when the store was open, there were far fewer visitors than normal.

Kilborn's

“I don’t know how many people came out to Kilborn’s on an annual basis before, but I’d say tens of thousands. We used to do a customer appreciation day and we might do that again, but the whole day we’d be packed; there’d be a line-up down the street before we even opened,” says McCallum.

Reynen’s approach was to respond directly to the new reality. A retired nurse, she was quick to research and find well-fitting masks to offer her clientele.

“At that time masks weren’t required but everyone was in a bit of a panic as to getting masks. I advertised these masks through my email list and the response was unbelievable, people were driving from everywhere to buy masks. I had curbside pick-up or I shipped them and, if they were local, I’d drop them off in their mailbox,” recalls Reynen.

Her sales also dropped and, even with the online store, Reynen says her clients — largely an older crowd — didn’t make a lot of direct purchases on the website. “People didn’t necessarily order online as much as they would call or email me.” 

That trend has continued, Reynen adds, with customers previewing stock online and then visiting the store to make a purchase. It’s the reason she’s investing in a point-of-sale system that will link to her website, so she doesn’t need to manually update the site every time something sells out of the store.

For Reynen, the lockdowns and restrictions were bittersweet. They afforded her the time to work on her website and, because her staff were not comfortable coming into work, she found herself unpacking, steaming, pricing and displaying stock.

“The positive thing about that was I probably knew more about my store … than I ever did before,” she chuckles.

On the downside, the brief re-openings were more nerve-wracking than joyful.

“I found it very stressful, there were a lot of people coming into our areas to get out of the big cities and it wasn’t comfortable, especially when masks weren’t mandated.”

For both of these retailers, recovery has been slow, largely because they are in a region that has traditionally hosted a large American summer population.

“Pre-COVID, you would see more cars with U.S. licenses than Ontario, so, yes, that made a big difference. The Americans were always good shoppers because the dollar was always in their favour so nothing is the same as pre-COVID but we’ve made up for it in other ways and done better than we thought we would,” says Reynen.

McCallum agrees. “The summer is critical for a tourist area and the first summer was challenging, we’d lost the U.S. market and the U.S. market is critical in this area, it’s huge and has been for hundreds of years … and it hasn’t really recovered.”

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