Big Box Stores in Downtown Kingston?

Gap, Urban Outfitters, Staples, downtown KingstonOver the years large retail stores have played an integral role in downtown Kingston’s appeal to shoppers. In fact, not too long ago the likes of S&R, Zellers, Modern Furniture, Indigo and Downtown Kingston Sports reigned supreme as hulking retail anchors along Princess Street, attracting droves of customers and resulting in spin-off sales for smaller neighboring businesses. But as the retail industry evolved and online shopping established dominance over brick and mortar outlets, downtown Kingston bid farewell to these large retailers one after another.

In 2017, downtown Kingston still has a handful of large(ish) retailers left, namely The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Trailhead, Staples and James Reid. A key trend amongst this list of dissimilar businesses, is that each of them sells a particular type of merchandise (e.g. clothing, outdoor gear, office supplies and furniture). That may not seem like a significant detail, however if you compare these stores with the likes Zellers and S&R, it suggests that the one-stop shopping experience offered by traditional department stores isn’t sought after by shoppers who frequent downtown Kingston.

The benefits that go hand in hand with larger retailers were recognized by City Council who approved a key update to the Official Plan last March, which opened the door to big box stores in downtown Kingston. The update specified that:

…large format retail uses are permitted provided that the built form is compatible with the historic building fabric, scale, pedestrian amenity linkages with the lake.

Over half a year later, no new big box business have set up shop downtown. Is it simply too soon to tell, or is the fate suffered by so many others keeping businesses away? Moreover:

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The realization that downtown Kingston may be a tricky place for a department store, or any big box store, to set up shop is an important one for those looking to fill the largest commercial vacancies along Princess Street. Indigo’s former location has remained empty since their closure in 2013, while new vacancies caused by the closure of American Apparel and the consolidation of Scotiabank are also ripe for redevelopment by big tenants. Even so, these spaces can just as easily be subdivided into smaller commercial properties, which when rented out at premium rates, could be even more advantageous for landlords.

Do you foresee box retailers and/or department stores opening up in downtown Kingston in the foreseeable future? Or, do you envision something a little more balanced and similar to the status quo? What will the size of stores along Princess Street end up like in 10 or 20 years?

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

10 thoughts on “Big Box Stores in Downtown Kingston?

  • The problem with Zellers and S&R is that over time, the merch they sold was just junkier and junkier.

    Back in the mid 90s and earlier, you could get great bargains on anything there. It wasn’t “top tier” merch by any means, but it was reasonable quality stuff for the money. You could stretch your ever-decreasing shopping dollars a lot farther, particularly if you had kids that would out-grow clothing quickly. I loved shopping at both locations. They had pretty much anything I could want. There was perceivable value in shopping in a place like that.

    Towards the end of their lives, these places were selling the same low-grade generic Chinese-made rubbish. More often than not, clothing and shoes were worn out and falling apart before kids managed to grow out of them. Any off-brand electronics bought at Zellers were a bit cheaper than buying brand name, but chances are you’d be replacing your item shortly after the warranty period was up because it would mysteriously die. The switch to ultra-low quality merchandise to keep prices low eventually killed the value that came with shopping there; at least I know that was the experience for me. The mantra of “buy cheap, buy often” took over and made me realize it really wasn’t a bargain in the long run. I preferred to pay a bit more up front for stuff that would last so I could get my money’s worth.

    It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. I’m sure the reasons for Zellers and S&R closing were far more complicated than my experience with them, but I think the points I made were valid.

    And of course, ever-shrinking availability of parking downtown is going to affect businesses and even dissuade any large company from setting up shop. It’s hard to get people to go shopping where there’s no parking. I know people love to wave the eco-friendly flag of public transic and bicycles, but people just don`t take the family shopping for bags of merch on bikes and bus. When was the last time you went shopping for a 60″ TV on a bus? When was the last time you took your kids shopping for back-to-school on bikes? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    I would love to see a revival of downtown shopping, but I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out.

  • I don’t know, parking will be a problem and you need population density down there too. We need more affordable living spaces close to the downtown core. I am not thrilled with the location or design of that new condo building and I’m not sure if they will be an affordable option for downsizers/families or not but, we DO need spaces for people to move to down there year round so they will shop the downtown daily. So far we have condos being built for students and plenty for those wanting to buy a two bedroom on the water for 2 million or so. I can move to Toronto if I want to pay that much for a two bedroom condo. We have an issue with saying we want people to live in our downtown and then making it nearly impossible for them to do so.

    • I don’t know, there are lots of condominium units downtown for which the price is affordable, and nowhere even close to 2 million for a 2-bedroom. Anna Lane, the Annandale, Frontenac Village, the Leeuwarden, and even the Capitol proposal have numerous offerings in the 200-300k range.

  • I think for the most part big box stores are on their way out. Many are going bankrupt/closing and the ones that are left are often empty. They use excessively large spaces, have way too many staff and for the most part don’t offer anything different than Amazon. If big box stores want to stay current they have reassess the way they do business and think smaller.

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