Yonge and St. Clair BIA’s Clicks to Bricks uses e-commerce to fill the gaps

“…there's a whole host of businesses that started as digital-only, and are transitioning to operating e-commerce side-by-side with physical locations,”

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Post by Andrew Seale  Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Post by Andrew Seale

Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Main street businesses have tracked the success of e-commerce retailers over the past couple of years with side-eyed glances as the new entrants have chewed at market share and in some cases devoured it all together. But Mackenzie Keast, executive director of the freshly-minted Yonge and St. Clair BIA (the BIA was only launched last year) argues that e-commerce isn’t an enemy, it’s an opportunity.

 And the BIA is looking to capitalize on that opportunity with its BIA Innovation Fund supported Clicks to Bricks program.

 “We recognize there were significant gaps in the retail mix in this neighbourhood – you aren’t necessarily able to stay here if you want to shop for everything you might need,” explains Keast. “If you look at the types of retail businesses that are thriving, it’s businesses that can't easily be digitally replicated like nail and hair salons, and other in-person services… we actually have a really good mix of that here.”

 A lot of e-commerce retailers have built their businesses on the back of delivering well-branded, high-quality products easily and efficiently through digital channels. But they’re also starting to see the value in opening brick and mortar locations.

 “Endy has started to do it, Warby Parker, Casper – there's a whole host of businesses that started as digital-only, and are transitioning to operating e-commerce side-by-side with physical locations,” says Keast.

He points to a recent study by JLL that found e-commerce retailers plan to open a combined 850 physical stores over the next five years. For a lot of these “e-tailers” going physical, there’s a sense of caution surrounding entering a five or ten-year lease. So launching a pop-up shop becomes the go-to model to test the market and the concept in a physical space.

“(According to the study) the three highest ranking cities for pop-up stores were New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto – these retailers are looking to this city,” he says. And 69 per cent of e-commerce retailers that set up a pop-up end up creating a long-term brick and mortar store. “We see that pipeline and we want to be the enablers of bringing that to our community.”

Clicks to Bricks creates a foundation for doing so. The program aims to fill gaps in the marketplace by connecting e-commerce retailers with property owners in the neighbourhood that have an underutilized asset.

“The goal is to hopefully see some of those retailers convert to a long-term retailer in this community and also draw new interest in this community,” says Keast. “If we're the first one to receive a pop-up location for an e-commerce retailer that's going to drive a lot of interest to the Yonge and St. Clair neighbourhood.”

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Clicks to Bricks will build a roster of e-commerce retailers looking at Toronto (“And make sure they’re filling a market gap here, not overlapping,” says Keast) and on the other end, a roster of property owners willing to host e-commerce retailers for a short period of time.

In addition to playing matchmaker, the Yonge and St. Clair BIA’s Clicks to Bricks program is going to offer e-tailers a “tenant inducement” fit-out provision which offers a pool of money these retailers can draw from to help build out their store and lower their upfront expenditures. Clicks to Bricks will handle license agreements and provide insurance so both parties are covered. “We’re really trying to make it a turnkey process.”

The goal, says Keast, is to get a firm understanding of the needs on the part of property owners and e-commerce retailers before having some of these pop-ups in place by the fall.

He says tenant attraction is going to play a bigger role in BIA mandates as they look to help their property owners and their neighbourhood economy as a whole, “especially those that are struggling with attraction from outside visitors to their neighbourhoods.

“We need to think about what is bringing people to this community,” says Keast. “It doesn't end at the retail mix, it's a multi-pronged approach, but I think an important driver can be bringing new and exciting retailers.”

David Hessels