New Vision Brings New Life to Downtown Montreal
September 22, 2023 4 Minute Read
If you’ve strolled along Montreal’s Sainte-Catherine Street West lately, you’ve noticed some major changes: new sidewalks, new faces and lots of new storefronts.
CBRE has been working behind the scenes to bring a range of exciting new retailers to the street.
“There’s been a huge uptick in deals along Sainte-Catherine since the start of the year,” says CBRE Vice President Christopher Rundle. “Retailers want to be in the heart of the action, and as Montreal’s main commercial artery, Sainte-Catherine is the obvious choice.”
In just the last few months, Rundle and his colleague Amanda Herbu have helped brands such as Rogers, Starbucks and local streetwear brand Centrall relocate to fresh spaces or set up flagship stores on Sainte-Catherine.
They’ve also helped introduce new retailers to the Quebec market, including Jianyang-based hot pot franchise Haidilao.
All this is a welcome change from the ravages the last few years have wrought on downtown Montreal.
Retailers struggled in the early days of the pandemic, as in-store shopping evaporated overnight and headlines were quick to proclaim the impending death of brick-and-mortar retail.
But it has since become clear that online shopping will not replace in-person experiences, rather it will complement them in the post-pandemic retail ecosystem.
A CBRE survey released earlier this year indicated that 7 out of 10 shoppers preferred the in-store experience over online, and that Gen Zers were less likely to shop online than Millennials.
“Brick-and-mortar is still important to retailers and to consumers,” says Rundle “People need a place to try things on, feel and touch the products, and experience the brand they’re buying from.”
The recovery of Sainte-Catherine’s retail is a testament to this.
According to CBRE’s H1 2023 Retail Rent Survey, asking rents along the street ranged between $90 to $200 per square foot at the end of last year – some of the highest in the country.
And landlords are enticing new companies by taking creative approaches to dealmaking by negotiating on tenant improvement packages, co-investing in renovations, and offering months of free rent.
Major brands such as Nike and Apple are inaugurating new flagship stores on the street. Even digitally native brands are expanding into physical locations and demonstrating the valuable role of in-person customer experiences.
“Retailers who grew during the pandemic are rushing to get brick-and-mortar locations,” says Rundle. “Alo Yoga is a perfect example of that.”
The Los Angeles-based luxury athletic wear brand entered the Canadian market in 2022 with the opening of a flagship store in Toronto’s Bloor-Yorkville area. Until then, the digital-first company had focused its expansion efforts on the U.S., so Canada represents its first foray into the international market.
Seeing the success of the Toronto stores, Alo will be deciding on which other markets to enter in the coming months and Montreal is sure to be on the list. Another digital native, Mejuri, recently opened a new store in the area, adjacent to Ste-Catherine Street. “Downtown Montreal's appeal, with the help of the Sainte-Catherine revitalization, shows that brick-and-mortar still plays an important role in the retail ecosystem,” says Rundle.
Change is hard
Despite all this activity, Rundle and his team have had to conquer a quintessential Montreal adversary in their quest to entice retailers downtown: the infamous orange construction cones.
In 2019, the City of Montreal launched the first phase of the Sainte-Catherine Ouest Project. Spanning Sainte-Catherine Street West between De Bleury Street and Atwater Avenue, the project entails replacing century-old underground infrastructure and reconfiguring public areas by widening sidewalks, providing additional seating, and planting trees along the freshly laid cobblestone street.
While that may sound lovely, convincing tenants to move into an area undergoing a major overhaul has been a challenge at times.
“At the start, tenants were put off by the construction, the noise and the traffic,” says Rundle. “We’re helping them see the long-term benefits of this disruption to their business.”
To help them to better envision how the revitalization will look when all is said and done, Rundle shows his clients the completed first phase, the eastern segment of the project. This renovated section is nearing zero vacancy and is busier than ever before. And with tourism recovering to pre-pandemic levels, there’s even more optimism – and shopping – on the horizon.
“It really feels like downtown’s coming back to life,” Rundle says. “It goes to show that when you combine quality retailers and a more welcoming environment, people will come back and the core will thrive.”
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