Is Shopper’s the new Starbucks?
I’m starting to think so. Even before Loblaw purchased Shopper’s Drug Mart the company had started rebranding and implementing an aggressive expansion plan much to the chagrin of Rexall, their direct competitor. Rexall tried a counter attack by proclaiming they were a drug store first and foremost. No superficial cosmetics and convenience store milk cartons for them. That didn’t work very well. Shopper’s had OTC drugs and a pharmacy, but also offered customers a one-stop shopping experience with a beauty boutique, late hours and bonus Optimum points. Moreover, through new real estate acquisition Shopper’s was marking its territory in and around Toronto like an alpha-male and strategically taking advantage of newer condo-centric neighbourhoods. Now it’s coming to the heart of our neighbourhood… again.
There are 3 Shopper’s Drug Marts along King Street West already. When Dollarama opened on King West many residents were outraged and thought it cheapened the neighbourhood. I also didn’t see the point when there was a long-standing outpost to spend your loonies and twonies nearby at Adelaide and Spadina. Similarly, I don’t see the point in opening a Shopper’s at King and Brant when there is one a short 2 blocks away at King and Peter. With this one literally at my doorstep, I can dash out in my pyjamas if I wanted to rather than walking east (338 King St. W), west (761 and 901 King St. W), or north to the 4 along Queen St. West. But I don’t want it.
In mid-2013 Loblaw announced that that space was going to be the location of Nutshell, its new whole foods and healthy lifestyle retail store. It was to be a “convenience-based fresh food led drugstore model” and target customers of Whole Foods Market and the like. The Press Release continued: “Nutshell live life well will offer healthy food and living ideas and feature a strong core grocery offering with integrated natural options, a broad vitamin and supplement assortment, professional in-store health and wellness services, a pharmacy that balances traditional services…with prevention and support, and health and beauty products, with a focus on natural skin care.” A year later the plan was no more.
A Brief Timeline of Events:
- Pilot project Nutshell announced mid-2013
- 9,000 SF space laid out and opening planned for Fall 2013
- Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Shopper’s Drug Mart reach an agreement for $12.4 billion takeover – July 2013
- Loblaw cancels Nutshell store plan. Eventually its Facebook page Nutshellonking shuts down – January / February 2014
- 500 King Street West storefront windows concealed during this time
- Shopper’s Drug Mart acquisition by Loblaw complete – March 2014
- Shopper’s announces that it will have a larger food selection, including fresh vegetables. President’s Choice items noticeably appear in the stores – early 2015
- Shopper’s Drug Mart sign at 500 King Street West revealed – March 2015
What bugs me is the lost opportunity here. It may be a less risky and practical business decision on the part of Loblaw, but what about innovation? Nutshell was a compelling concept and, as a pilot project, exciting for the neighbourhood. The trend for healthy living is still on the upswing. Furthermore, there is no Whole Foods Market in sight. The only one downtown is nestled between Avenue Road and Hazelton Lanes in posh Yorkville. A few years ago I heard rumours that there might be a Whole Foods opening near Bathurst and Front, but in 2017. While Whole Foods is in expansion mode in Canada, at this point some of the locations are still just rumours. Whole Food’s sister-store Fresh and Wild at King and Spadina is a little shop of pricey organic foods, but without the lifestyle and pharmacy aspect of Nutshell or Canadian ownership. And look at how successful Joe Fresh has become when Loblaw took that giant step towards the fashion market.
I have nothing against Loblaw or Shopper’s. In fact, I’m a regular customer. I shop at the Loblaws at Queen and Portland and get my prescriptions and personal toiletries from the Shopper’s at King and Peter about 90 percent of the time. I have a points card for both of them. Now these two successful Canadian brands are under one umbrella. Applause applause.
As a resident, however, it pains me to see Shopper’s signage above the door already. Each time I pass 500 King Street West I think what a wasted opportunity not only of a great concept but also of an historic gem of a building in our neighbourhood. The industrial character of our neighbourhood is well-known and these are among the oldest industrial structures in the city. This structure spanning Brant Street to almost Spadina Street is the former Gurney Stove Foundry (now home to multiple tenants and owned by Allied REIT since 2003). When the Gurney brothers expanded their Hamilton-based stove making business to Toronto in 1883 they set up business along King Street West. The buildings that remain from the original complex showcase an exterior of red and yellow brick and an interior of original oak floors and massive wooden beams of old-growth Canadian pine. The heritage building is really beautiful and it would have been nice to see something more unique go inside its walls and perhaps more sympathetic to the character of the building and to the upmarket aspect of our neighbourhood.
Is this Shopper’s going to be different? Will the team behind the urban-cool atmosphere of the newest downtown Loblaws stores reinterpret this Shopper’s with Pharmacy written across the wall in graffiti? I certainly hope not. Or is it going to be like Starbucks, the same look and offerings stalking me at every half city block?