Downtown foot traffic is slowly increasing, but there's still a long way to go

A sidewalk sale was in full swing along St-Catherine St. on Sunday afternoon.

But merchants have mixed views on how successful the weekend had been.

"Probably just a temporary boost in sales, as I think people are coming downtown because of the nice weather in September," said Joe Trubiano, founder of Twin Roads, a retailer specializing in socks.

Like many downtown shops, sales at Trubiano's store took a dive during the pandemic, when there were fewer people working downtown, fewer students milling about, and tourism had dried up.

Linen Depot's Peter Utucuyan has noticed a similar drop. Although he's happy with his weekend sales, he said the crowds just aren't what they used to be.

"Before the pandemic, we had a lot more people, people were [out more]," he said.

Normally held in July, this year the St-Catherine sidewalk sale was moved to September to conform with public health requirements.

Montreal centre-ville, a downtown merchant's association, estimates that 500 thousand people walked along this three-kilometre stretch each day of the sale.

"It is the max capacity that we could ask for" with respect to COVID guidelines, said Glenn Castanheira, executive director of the association.

But before the pandemic hit, this number was around 750 thousand, according to Castanheira.

Nevertheless, he says foot traffic appears to be going back up.

"Our data does show that footfall has increased by 40 per cent since March."

But it's not clear how many of those people are shopping. And compared to pre-COVID data, Castanheira says downtown foot traffic is still much lower than it used to be, by around 30 to 40 per cent.

"We are faring better every month, but we are still ways away from what we had pre-pandemic."

So with foot traffic down, how are downtown retailers faring in terms of revenue?

"It very much varies," said Castanheira.

For retailers on St-Catherine's St., which are typically larger and more widely known, "stores are mostly flagships there to promote the product and then increase sales online."

Castanheira says these kinds of stores are doing fairly well, but "when it comes to smaller, niche retailers, we're not there yet."

"Some sales are down 30 per cent compared to 2019, and if we look at shops that [are] specialized for tourists, sales are down 50 per cent."

CONSTRUCTION WOES

Retailers complain that construction on St-Catherine St. is killing business. They say with detours and a shortage of street-level parking, shoppers are less willing to make the trek downtown.

Castanheira says nearly half of the off-street parking spots downtown are vacant.

"What we would like to see is the city work [more closely] with the private sector, to make these parking spots easily available and if anything, easily accessible, with better signage so people know where they are," he said.

He notes that 75 per cent of downtown's construction is due to private projects, the majoority of which are related to real estate.

And as far as retailers like Joe Trubiano are concerned, downtown's troubles may be too far gone, construction or no construction.

"Once you sort of lose that habit of shopping in one particular area, no matter how nice it might be, two, three years down the road people won't come back."  

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