MALLS AND PALLS

In February 2003, Bermuda’s Chamber of Commerce will put out the figures for December’s retail sales. These figures are unlikely to show any significant increase in local spending. Admittedly, retail sales seem to be down in all western economies, so it’s arguable that Bermuda is simply following a global pattern.

            That may be true. But it’s also true that Bermudians do a helluva lot of shopping overseas and on the Internet and through service providers such as Zip-X; and through other means. And not much of this kind of shopping is tracked or recorded.

            The odds are that nationally, Bermudian spending is generally higher – perhaps significantly higher – than last year. The odds are that while nationally, Bermudian spending is significantly higher, direct Bermudian spending in Bermuda’s on-island local retail market is down; or not significantly up.

            Why?

            Because overseas shopping and Internet shopping offers a variety of choice that local retailers would be – actually are – hard-pressed to match. Then, with UPS, Fedex, and Zip-X delivering goods in two to five working days; there’s also a high element of convenience.

            Whilst a three day wait may seem a long time, it needs to be set against the reality that the selection and choice and purchase arrangements are made in the comfort of one’s home, at a time of one’s choosing, and without the hassle of driving, parking, walking, and then hunting, and – often – not finding; all followed by more walking and driving. For many of these imported items, the final price is unlikely to be much higher than what would have been charged for an over-the-counter local sale.

            Bermudians are a sophisticated people. They are accustomed to the ambiance of modern shopping malls and shopping precincts. They are used to wandering amongst vast choices; wandering without vehicle traffic; wandering and able to stop and eat, or stop and rest; just wandering in a shopping area that’s full of people and people friendly activities.

            Designers of modern shopping malls and precincts now understand that they are not just delivering measured selling space to a retailer; they are also delivering ambiance and atmosphere to shoppers. Retailers in these malls take care, nowadays, to ensure that their mall and precinct managers cultivate an atmosphere and support activities that will attract and hold people.

            That’s what happens overseas. In Canada, the USA, the UK, the European continent, in the Islands.

            But not here. Not in our City of Hamilton. Not here. Oh no! Not here!

            With great and sustained effort, Hamilton’s whole merchant community, has actively resisted – and continues to resist – the kind of change that is necessary for their own economic survival. Hamilton’s merchant community persists – insists – on maintaining a retail environment that is NOT people friendly; that does NOT invite wandering; that does NOT encourage people to come and tarry awhile.

            Hamilton’s merchant community persists – insists – on maintaining a retail environment that requires – demands – a narrow and focused ‘hunt and seek’ style of shopping. And that’s stupid. Damn stupid.

            Hamilton’s retail centre of gravity is probably a point near Frankie Brewster’s Pro Shop. If you stand there, you’re probably at the centre of Hamilton’s major shopping area. If you measure out from there and go 150 metres [500 feet] east and west, then 150 metres [500 feet] north and south; you’ll find all the major shops. But this whole area is just about the same area as a medium size [new] mall in North America or a shopping precinct in a mid-size English town.

            But oh, how inconvenient! Cars, bikes, trucks. Parking and double-parking. No convenient eating places. No convenient sitting or resting places. And when it rains…  Oh forget it! 

            So here we are. The Bermuda Monetary Authority said there was $91,000,000 in circulation at Christmas. We’re a sophisticated population with money to spend. A cosmopolitan population that is renowned in East Coast malls and factory outlets for being free-spending shoppers. A free-spending population that saves to spend.

            Yet, in February 2003, local retailers will complain that Bermudians didn’t spend as much this year as last.

            Perhaps local retailers need to examine the ambiance that Hamilton delivers. Perhaps local retailers need to create a shopping precinct that attracts, holds, and services people. Perhaps local retailers need to appreciate that their ability to attract dollars depends, ultimately, on their ability to attract – and hold – people.

            Perhaps local retailers need to move fast to push the traffic out of town and pull the people into town. Perhaps they need to rip up that long strip of dead asphalt that knifes through Hamilton. Give it over to grass and flowers, or tile and flowers, or cobblestones and flowers; and walking and sitting people, and commercial services that cater to walking and sitting people.

            Imagine what would happen if one of those North American malls suddenly decided to let people drive and park their cars right on the main mall walkway. Can you imagine that? It should be easy. It’s exactly what the local retail community has been doing for years, and is still doing now.

            But in February 2003, in an ironic twist, the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce [Retail Division] will speak for Bermuda’s retail community and will comment on low retail sales!  

            Come on guys. In this New Year, take your fingers out from where you’ve got them so firmly stuck, put your wooden heads together, talk to the four banks and to this government, float the bonds, and make the changes.

            If you don’t, you’ll be Zip-X’ed, Fedex’ed, UPS’ed, Amazon’ed, J C Penney’ed, Land’s End’ed, King of Prussia’d…  out of existence.

            But why should I and anybody else care? We should care because our whole Bermuda environment is affected by this steadily reducing choice. This reduction is driven by the lack of profit that can’t provide funds for re-investment and improvement and that helps to further reduce future choice…

            I and my 48,999 fellow Bermudians are all part of the problem. If I and you and  government and business and retailers work together, we can all help enhance choice, improve ambiance for both locals and tourists, retain and increase retail jobs, improve profits, and back to where it started – enhance choice.

            That’s if we work together. But if we stay separate, consumers will go on seeking variety and silently complaining – by withdrawing their custom – about the lack of ambiance. Retailers will go on watching their market shrink. Tourists and International Business will find Bermuda to be even more unjustifiably expensive. And all of us Bermudians will eventually find that our whole quality of life will have declined to where Bermuda becomes an extremely expensive but unattractive living environment for everyone from Local to Tourist to Businessman.

            It isn’t that I want a mall. I want a growing future. Not the declining future that I see looming. So all of us – customers, merchants, business community, and government – need to invest in change – NOW!

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