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British Columbia

Shift in shopping changes how tenants fill Vancouver’s retail spaces

While Colliers’ vacancy index for urban locations in Vancouver rose to four percent, that for suburban areas fell to one percent between mid and late 2022

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Bruce Peters, who has long owned Zazou Hair Salon with two locations in North Vancouver, is looking for a larger retail space that is very different.

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He hopes it will be an Uber-like venture, with dozens of beauty professionals renting space and offering their services in a space that’s about 6,000 square feet. Ideally located in an open air shopping center with parking and access to transit for customers and barbers, nail technicians and massage therapists as well as large grocery stores and major outlets.

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The idea is to put this store in the Urbana Beauty Village in the path of customers who haven’t fully returned to their downtown offices and who cling to “necessity shops” where they buy groceries and basic necessities, even though they have theirs other spending to curb inflation and rate hikes.

“The big advantage is really the cost. We can’t get into a situation where you’re sitting all-in at $100 per square foot in East Vancouver or Downtown Vancouver. Those numbers don’t work for us,” Peters said. “We need profitability.”

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Its shift comes as property firm Colliers describes a “recalibration” in the retail market. His newly released retail report suggests a vacancy index for suburban locations, like the one Peters is looking for, fell from 2.3 percent to 1 percent between mid-2022 and late 2022.

“It’s really hard to find that type of space now,” said Sheldon Scott, executive vice president of Colliers, which specializes in suburban commercial real estate.

He has analyzed opportunities for Peters starting in North Van, then Burnaby, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Langley and will be looking at South Surrey and Delta.

At the same time, Colliers’ vacancy index for urban locations, including downtown Vancouver and high street areas, has increased from 2.6 percent to four percent over the same period. The highest vacancy rates were found in parts of Alberni Street at 9.57 percent, Robson Street between Thurlow and Bute at 15.43 percent and Gastown at 7.65 percent.

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These spots also have some of the higher prices per square foot ranging from $70 to $240 compared to other high street locations like Vancouver’s West End, Yaletown and Mount Pleasant ranging from $50 to $85 per square foot.

“Last year it was very crowded from January through August,” said Sherman Scott, associate vice president of Colliers, which focuses on city leases. “Then things flattened out.”

He added that while a four percent vacancy rate is still a healthy number, the number of downtown offices has not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. Also, many retail tenants helped by government loans have not fully recovered.

“A lot of my work over the past six months has been to fill up previous restaurants and gyms that unfortunately didn’t make it,” Scott said.

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Ironically, many of the new businesses arriving are also restaurants and gyms, but they aren’t burdened with the accumulated debt that closed the previous tenants, he said.

“Hybrid work has not yet been solved in all companies. They are still investigating how it will work for the staff. Is it three days or four days and on which days?” said Madeleine Nicholls, Colliers senior managing director. “I would say downtown probably has 60 percent of the traffic and occupancy that it was before the pandemic.”

Nicholls said retail spending has shifted from big ticket items like home renovations, landscaping and furniture to fashion, cosmetics and personal services like hair and nails. Even if people haven’t quite returned to the office yet, they meet up with friends and colleagues in restaurants and celebrate together.

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According to Colliers, there has been surprising growth in the apparel and fashion sector, with fashion spending up 27 percent from last year across Canada as sectors like car dealerships and electronics stores struggle.

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