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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Why the demise of big box stores is not necessarily good news for main street shops

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Wal-Mart store recently closed somewhere in the U.S.. Photo by Brave New Films. Source: Flickr

Considering that the SAQ announced last June that it would close two of its smaller outlets in the Southwest borough of Montreal (presumably to open up larger outlets in other parts of town or the suburbs), it may seem surprising to hear that other chains, such as Rona, are actually in the process of closing big box outlets to open up smaller stores instead.

Yes, that’s right, the company announced two or three weeks ago that 10 large “Rona L’entrepôt” stores would be closed, while 25 smaller stores would be inaugurated. Those who are familiar with the evolution of American retail may find this unsurprising: this process has been under way in many parts of the U.S. for a few years, with large chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy abandoning their big boxes in favor of smaller, more efficient stores where there are fewer products but only those products that sell. (Check out Julia Christensen’s blog about big box reuse if you’re interested in the afterlife of big boxes).

If big boxes are closing and being replaced by smaller stores, which can fit more easily in the existing built forms of our cities and towns, isn’t that good news? According to Alex Maclean of the Architects’ Newspaper, it may actually make things worse for so-called “mom-and-pop stores” that are already struggling, as these stores cannot possibly compete with mini-Targets and mini-Wal-Marts. If you will, mini versions of big box stores are akin to invasive species (like the Purple loosestrife) that can effectively out compete anything, leading to a net loss of biodiversity.

Take for example Masson Street in Rosemont or Wellington Street in Verdun: both of these local main streets still have a number of family-owned, non-franchised businesses (including a family-owned hardware store on Masson). But if a mini-Wal-mart came on Wellington, or a medium-size Rona on Masson, it is likely a number of these businesses would flounder. Granted, locally and family owned businesses are not necessarily more efficient and do not necessarily offer greater variety than franchised stores. But they (along with their small business proprietors) are, it seems to me, a form of biodiversity worth preserving – by us, consumers.




  1. I tend to take a slightly more optimistic conclusion from the development of chain retailers reinvesting in neighbourhood commercial strips. While it’s true that a mom and pop hardware store may not be able to compete on a cost basis, smaller Ronas may shift shopping trips from commercial drags to suburban malls. And since people often combine shopping trips (eg. first the hardware store, then the butcher, finally pharmacy) the overall benefit to neighbourhood retail vitality could actually be positive. 

  2. I think this is going to change the geography of retail, leading more people to bike/walkable places where these new mini-mega-retailers are popping up. When you are in a car, heading to big box stores, you don’t shop. When you are on foot in a downtown or on your bike, you can experience the place from a slower more human scaled perspective and learn about what else is there, perhaps even going into a new place that you discover.

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