The Death of Retail has been Greatly Exaggerated

I’m told we’re witnessing the Third Great Extinction of Retail. First, Shopping Malls killed the Main Street stores. Then Big Boxes killed the Shopping Mall stores. Now Online Shopping is killing the Big Box stores. (If you don’t have a song going through your head by now you were probably not alive in 1979.)

"Never before have we had so many people on the planet studying the art of business. And never before has there been such collective despair at the prospects of small businesses."

Some folks seem to be particularly relishing this final defeat of retail. “Covid was only the last straw”, they say, nodding knowingly. “Soon everything will be delivered by drone.”

Never before have we had so many people on the planet studying the art of business. And never before has there been such collective despair at the prospects of small businesses. It makes you wonder what they are teaching in Business School.


In the meantime, Amazon operates like the Tooth Fairy, dropping speedy, anonymous, cheap, disposable goods at our doorstep. No need to think about where it came from, who manufactured it under what conditions, or what unpleasant by-products might have resulted. And, thanks to the fully socialized cost of garbage removal in North America, we don’t need to worry about where it’ll go when it breaks. That too is taken care of by equally magic fairies known as the garbage men.

"The OP had postulated that, if fifteen minute walkable neighbourhoods were allowed to form all over Ottawa, we could simultaneously tackle the interrelated problems of excess traffic, carbon emissions, rising fuel costs, ill health, crime, unemployment, loneliness and boredom."

Such is the world we’ve collectively birthed under Covid: a utopia of sitting in front of screens and having everything delivered to the door. Gone is the inconvenience of having to deal with weather, a trip to the store interrupted by chatty neighbours, face-to-face encounters with people who may have made the product, or at least know how to fix it when it breaks. No more familiar clerks asking how last weeks’ birthday party or turkey dinner went, because they remember what you bought last week. No walk home, mulling over how to alter the dinner recipe because you didn’t get exactly what you were looking for, but found something maybe better.


The much anticipated demise of brick and mortar retail has a bearing on Ottawa’s Official Plan. The OP had postulated that, if fifteen minute walkable neighbourhoods were allowed to form all over Ottawa, we could simultaneously tackle the interrelated problems of excess traffic, carbon emissions, rising fuel costs, ill health, crime, unemployment, loneliness and boredom. The theory was that if small independent businesses were supported by a local neighbourhood clientele, we’d rebuild the kind of community connections that might allow us to take on these significant challenges collectively.

"...every Ottawa-owned business is a potential life raft to keep us all afloat. Ottawa-owned businesses supplied by Ottawa products will be even more valuable."

But alas! I keep hearing that this is the worst possible time to be contemplating walkable neighbourhoods. First we need to stand back and watch the online giants deal the final blow to our neighbourhood stores. Our increasing dependence on Amazon and similar companies will stand us in good stead if the next pandemic happens to play out exactly like this one: Netflix and doorstop deliveries for the well-to-do, Covid and no sick days for the warehouse proletariat.


But what if the next disaster is not like this one? What if it’s a computer virus that downs the Internet for six weeks? Or political upheaval in China that cuts off essential exports? Or another ice storm like Ontario in 98? Or a climb in gas prices that goes up and up and never comes back down?


In any of these scenarios, every Ottawa-owned business is a potential life raft to keep us all afloat. Ottawa-owned businesses supplied by Ottawa products will be even more valuable.

If we continue to argue for the status quo, confident that Amazon will get us through whatever fate next throws our way, we may get hit by something we’re utterly unprepared for. In the meantime, give some thought to buying local.


JANET MARK WALLACE is a returning blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa.