Column: There’s more to attracting customers than contrived themes

By Scott Foster

Who wouldn’t want to protect their business?

The raison d’etre of a business improvement association is to look after the interest of its members. These local business groups are supposed to look out for their own, ensuring that all stores and restaurants that are part of the collective, prosper as a single entity. So it’s no wonder that BIA cash goes towards beautifying the vicinity around their stores.

After all, the more concrete plant pots, slick signs and fancy streetlights a BIA installs within its territory, the more shoppers it will attract. Throw in a theme dreamed up by association planners and presto: more customers.

Or at least that seems to have been the thinking of Centretown BIAs since they were established in the 1980s.

In fact, some efforts at creating thematic strip malls have been lost on local consumers who prefer the Glebe or Elgin Street shopping areas. These same areas lack BIAs, yet they’re packed to the gills every weekend with shoppers of all ages.

No BIA means no planned theme. But what these two areas do have is diversity: a hodge-podge of stores, from boutiques to greasy spoons, that have captured the hearts of people wanting a less- contrived setting with a more eclectic selection of shops.

People will go where they can to find variety, and that does not mean areas like Sparks Street (unless they are shopping for souvenirs or suits).

Meanwhile, Somerset Village tries to throw the shopper back in time by melding its amenities with existing heritage buildings, capitalizing on its historical surroundings.

Somerset Heights tries to promote its Chinatown feel, but seems to drown out individual retailers and restaurants that may not fall into this category.

Consumers are not fooled, nor are they turned on by man-made markets.

There is an easy way to beautify urban space, but history suggests that no gimmicks are required.

Using the Glebe and Elgin Street shopping areas as examples, consumers gravitate towards diverse environments that are not over-planned.

A back-to-the-basics approach, with less emphasis on signs and matching lampposts, could be the best option for attracting buyers as well as suppliers to BIA-run areas.

There are some great stores and restaurants within these strip malls, but thematic decorations and planned-out walkways probably don’t contribute to their prosperity.

Customers flock to a building that is uniquely decorated. They bask in the ambiance of a room that is aesthetically original. And they sniff out products that scream “different.”

The best protection for these businesses is to ensure each has its own unique flavour.