Jean T. Rickli

Texte par Jean Rickli


More than three-quarters of Canadians expect customer service online to be as good as or better than the in-store experience. Due to the pandemic, consumers were forced to go online to engage and to purchase with retailers. Nobody had a choice! This created an interesting movement, in that over the course of 2020, we saw a 40 per cent increase in net new digital shoppers who would not have normally purchased online. A new definition of loyalty emerged during the pandemic that comprised health, safety, convenience and trust in a frictionless environment. This new definition is the new norm for shopping in the digital and the physical world as we come out of the pandemic. One-third of Canadians state they are willing to forgo some product quality for a positive customer experience, even though product qual ity has been the number one priority for the online experience for years.

Given this information, it comes as no surprise that online customer service should be as good or better than the in-store experience. Forty-six per cent of Canadians expect brands to know them and know their profile; personalization became important. Another interesting point is that 71 per cent of Canadians say the in-store safety experience will be the most important shopping feature to them even after the pandemic is over.

Turning to shopping centers, it is important to note that between 2018 and 2019, foot traffic to Canada’s top 10 malls (measured by revenue per square foot) declined by 22 per cent. Foot traffic in February 2020 vs February 2019 dropped by 42 per cent. But as pandemic restrictions loosen up amid soaring vaccination rates, it’s believed the pandemic may have given shopping malls — or at least a few of them — a new lease on life.

Canadians have been collectively spending more than $2 billion more a month shopping online than they did in pre-pandemic times. Evidence from the U.S., which is further along than Canada in reopening its economy, suggests there’s pent-up demand for in-person shopping after months of limited access to stores. Some outdoor malls are already seeing signs of the unleashing of that long-repressed craving for in-person shopping. Over the longer term, many of the trends the pandemic helped accelerate will likely mean malls will have to adopt new ways of doing business. For less trendy malls, where you buy your groceries or go to see a health professional, the future will be more transactional and landlords will have to redefine their use clause for future tenants. Other malls will have to turn into mixed-use structures with retail, office and residential spaces. Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and RioCan will pursue the redevelopment of HBC downtown Montreal location into a 25-storey office tower and the downsizing of the existing Hudson’s Bay retail space as one example.

Expect :

  • Online customer service is more important than expected amid the digital shift in Canada.
  • Rumours about the impending downfall of the shopping mall have been circulating for years
  • Pandemic hits downtown Montreal retail as many look to a brighter future when students and workers return


Downtown Montreal was deeply impacted due to the combination of more office people and students working from home, store closures and a decline in tourism as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the province. There are positive signs, now with vaccinations rising and COVID cases falling and there is renewed hope that activity will return to the core of the city. The Montreal retail market remains challenging, as Quebec has now experienced several lockdowns. Montreal implemented the strictest lockdown measures. Twenty-eight per cent of downtown Montreal stores were vacant or temporarily closed in Q4. Retail vacancy/temporary closure rate on Sainte Catherine Street increased from 18 per cent in Q2 to 23 per cent in Q4, and in shopping malls from 18 to 20 per cent. The reconfiguration of Sainte Catherine Street is progressing with work currently happening at Phillips Square and between Robert-Bourassa and Mansfield.

Downtown workers have adapted to working from home, which raised the question of whether most of these 300,000 employees will ever go back to the office. In Q4, more than half of businesses based in office towers were vacant or temporarily closed. Montreal’s hotels have also suffered; while 2019 occupancy rates were an average 74 per cent, in 2020 occupancy rates never rose above the 20 per cent mark set in April of 2020. Montreal City Hall is preparing summer initiatives setting aside more than $30 million in investments. These funds will help support bars and restaurants to reopen, offer greater flexibility for patios, and free-street parking on weekends. Pre-COVID fundamentals indicate that downtown Montreal can recoup its daytime population quickly once tourists return and students shift back to in-person classes, which includes 120,000 students from local universities. The Montreal Eaton Centre has seen several notable openings, including Time Out food hall, Decathlon, Sephora, Samsung Canada, and Pandora which bodes well for an eventual upturn.

Given all this information, we can remain optimistic about the future, although many adjustments will be required over the next two years by consumers, retailors and landlords to come together to insure the best outcome for all stakeholders.

JEAN T. RICKLI, BIO For over 20 years, Jean has held key positions in the Hotel Industry, Restaurants, Real Estate, and Retail sectors. Jean has a Bachelors degree in Hotel Management from the Hotel School of Geneva, Switzerland, and executive training from the Centre of International Research and Studies in Management (CIREM) from the University of Montreal. He has both Canadian and Swiss citizenships, and is fluent in English, French, and German.