June 9, 2017

Competition pushes retailers to ramp up in-store attractions

Holograms, screens with motion detectors and self-playing pianos help woo customers

Tom Lee Music vice-president Graham Blank touches a screen at his store to enable a video of Sarah McLachlan to show on a screen and for the piano to start playing the notes that are played in the video | Glen Korstrom 

A customer at the Sport Chek on Robson Street points at a large monitor in the bike section – a gesture that makes the screen start showing videos of cycling.

The customer then points at a couple more places on the screen and starts to navigate the store’s selection of bikes for sale.

The year-old store remains one of the more innovative retail locations in Metro Vancouver for integrating technology into the shopping experience.

Not only does the sporting goods retailer have displays that include holograms to make it appear as if some shoes were on fire, it also uses light displays and has touch-screen technology in many departments to engage shoppers.

DIG360 retail analyst Raymond Shoolman laments that too many retailers in Vancouver are not updating their stores with new technology, and risk being left behind.

“Creating experiences is a critical part of retail today,” Shoolman said. “Just having a nice store with nice products in a good location isn’t enough anymore.”

He said consumers are increasingly expecting stores to provide entertaining and interactive displays, and that retail laggards, which simply showcase products, will wither.

“It’s a heavy expense, even for department stores, but interactive displays are inevitable and you have to do this kind of thing today.”

Retailers who invest in upgrading facilities to make in-store shopping experiences more fun tend to spend the money when opening a new store or during a major renovation.

Tom Lee Music, for example, spent an undisclosed amount on a major renovation to open a new flagship store in May above the London Drugs store at the corner of Granville and Georgia streets.

(Customers at the Sport Chek at the corner of Robson and Thurlow streets can point at a screen to get it to show videos or products | Glen Korstrom)

In the piano room of the new space, the music store’s vice-president, Graham Blank, demonstrated two different technologies that enable customers to use apps to stream video footage of performers onto a screen. As Glenn Gould and Sarah McLachlan played piano on the screen, a grand piano in the showroom started matching the music, note for note, on its own.

“You can also play something on the piano and then have the piano play it back to you,” Blank said. “It can be easier to listen to what it sounds like when you’re not also doing the playing.”

The new Tom Lee Music store also has a 70-seat recital studio, where Blank expects musicians to make regular appearances and help draw customers. Shoppers who are not in the studio can watch streamed performances on the many flat-screen TVs throughout the store.

(Keys depress on their own as Sarah McLachlan sings on a monitor at Tom Lee Music | Glen Korstrom)

The store’s highly visible outside sundeck is another place where performers can play – and draw the attention of potential customers at the busy intersection.

Other retailers are incorporating engaging features and more frequently holding events in stores.

RYU regularly invites customers via its Facebook page to gatherings at its store at 1745 West 4th Avenue, where there is an upstairs gym.

Arc’teryx also intends to host events and speakers in an 80-square-foot part of its new flagship store at 813 Burrard Street.

One wall will have a large map of lower B.C. that delineates hiking and ski trails, and includes space for staff to write information on weather and trail conditions.

The space also has a projector that can beam light on a pull-down screen to generate other imagery.

Arc’teryx president Jon Hoerauf told Business in Vancouver at the store’s June 8 launch event that interactive technology displays were not included in the store for two main reasons. First, he wants the customer to have personal attention from staff and not be focused on technology. Second, technology changes so fast that displays could soon be outdated.

He was not concerned that customers will soon expect such features.

(A black board at the new Arc'Teryx on Burrard Street has information on trail conditions and encourages customers to speak with staff about what trails are worth hiking on | Glen Korstrom) 

Other companies are alert to consumer demand for interactive displays even if the technology is not immediately in their new stores.

Vancouver’s BFJ Design, for example, is preparing to open a new 4,000-square-foot showroom later this month at 1362 West Pender Street.

The space will showcase high-end kitchen cabinets, vanities, faucets and other products made by manufacturers such as Fendi or Bentley.

In future, the company intends to incorporate interactive displays that have holograms and virtual reality (VR) to attract customers, said operations manager Mike Jobani.

Customers eventually will be able to wear VR goggles to get the perception that they are in a factory where workers are making the high-end cabinets.

“Some people like to see the quality of the factory and what technologies they are using,” Jobani said.

“For those people, it is a bit like buying a Ferrari, where they want to know everything about it. We sell very expensive kitchens.”• 



Why bourbon’s hot this summer

Sunshine and bourbon? It's more refreshing than you think 

Matt Jones, Beam Suntory whiskey ambassador and bourbon specialist. Beam Suntory photo

Mark your calendars for June 14, National Bourbon Day. Not that we need a special day to enjoy the rich, sweet taste of this all-American whiskey, but hey, any excuse will do just fine.

In fact, some of us got a head start on things a couple weeks ago when the Cascade Room on Main Street hosted its inaugural Barbarian’s Feast.

It was an evening of meat — mountains of ribs, roast beef, sausage, Cornish hens, turkey wings and a whole spit-roasted pig from Gelderman’s Farms in Abbotsford — plus lashings of beer, bourbon and cocktails from the Cascade Room’s general manager, Justin Taylor, and his team of talented bartenders.

Beam Suntory whiskey ambassador and bourbon specialist Matt Jones was on hand from Toronto to lead guests through a tasting of bourbons from Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. It was a good reminder of just why we fell in love with the brown spirit in the first place.

“It’s unpretentious,” Jones says. “Our philosophy is, you enjoy it the way you want.”

But, you might be thinking, it’s summer. Dark spirits like bourbon are for winter, for cold days and rainy nights by the fire, not for hot sunny afternoons on the patio, right?

Wrong, Jones insists. In fact, he points out, bourbon is the key ingredient in a mint julep, which he describes as “the quintessential summer drink.”

Adds Taylor: “There may not be a better spirit to pair with summertime barbecue. Smoky meats, grilled veggies and bourbon — amazing! And who could resist a bourbon cocktail with fresh peaches?”

Bourbon, for the uninitiated, is a barrel-aged spirit that must be made in the United States (mostly in Kentucky), has to contain at least 51 per cent corn and needs to be aged in new charred-oak barrels. No additives are allowed; it’s the oak that lends most of the flavour, those distinctive vanilla, cherry and caramel notes.

Bourbon has been distilled since at least the 18th century and has been called bourbon since the 1820s. As a consequence of the Wild West melée of early American distilling, bourbon is the most tightly regulated spirit in the world — unlike, say, Canadian whisky, which only needs to be mashed, distilled and aged for three years.

Bourbon is also a “whiskey,” not a “whisky.” As Jones puts it, “To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’, that is the question.”

But there’s a simple answer: Whiskies that evolved from the Scottish tradition, like Canadian whisky, don’t have an “e”; whiskeys that descended from the Irish, like bourbon, do.

In Canada, we love bourbon, even more than we love our homegrown rye.

“Bourbon is still driving brown spirits in Canada, though Canadian whisky is finally getting its day,” Jones says.

One of our favourites is the Jim Beam Black Kentucky Bourbon, which is not only supremely affordable ($26.29 at BC Liquor Stores), but was also named the world’s highest rated bourbon of 2016 by the International Wine and Spirits Competition.

But there are plenty of interesting craft bourbons as well, including Maker’s Mark, which Jones describes as “the original small-batch bourbon, the smallest of the big guys.”

Whatever bourbon you choose, it’s easy to enjoy in a summery cocktail.

It mixes well with quintessentially summery flavours such as strawberry, watermelon, citrus, peach and ginger. Try a Kentucky mule (bourbon, lime juice and ginger ale).

“It tricks you into feeling refreshed,” Jones says.

It’s delicious in a julep piled with crushed ice; in a classic sour shaken with egg white; or in a highball, one part bourbon stirred with three parts soda and garnished with a slice of lemon.

“The highball is so underrated,” Jones says. “When in doubt, a highball for sure.”

He thinks a moment, then adds, “The honest, best way to enjoy bourbon in the summer is just on the rocks.”

Taylor promises he’ll hold another Barbarian’s Feast next year. In the meantime, enjoy your bourbon juleps, sours and highballs all summer long. I know I will.

Recipe: Suffering Barbarian

This cocktail created by Justin Taylor of the Cascade Room is an easy and refreshing way to enjoy bourbon.

2 oz (30 mL) bourbon
½ oz (15 mL) fresh lemon juice
3 dashes Angostura bitters
4 oz (120 mL) ginger beer

Place all ingredients in a highball glass, add lots of ice and stir. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. Serves 1.

Vancouver Westender


Documenting the destructive effects of gross income inequality

While puttering in my garden recently, I overheard a passing cyclist calling out to his friend, “This area used to be affordable.”

They were riding by a large house across from me in Kitsilano that’s been empty for at least two years. It used to have five affordable suites in it. It was bought by a local accountant who lives a few blocks away. For whatever reasons, it has been sitting empty – maybe waiting for permits, maybe just because equity growth trumps all other wealth growth these days so who cares if it’s empty?

Based on a conservative estimate of a $1.5 million increase in value in the past two years, the owner is gaining around $2,000 a day. That cyclist, if he’s earning half the two-person household median income of $75,000 per year, is accumulating taxable income at around 5% of that rate ($104 per day). And he actually shows up at a job and applies himself, contributes to the real economy and the community. And then pays income taxes.

This is an illustration of best-selling author Thomas Piketty’s disturbing contention that capital begets capital, and will, without some manner of income redistribution, stretch the divide between those who have and those who don’t. Capital growth outperforms income growth. To paraphrase an article about Piketty in The Economist, only a burst of rapid economic growth or government intervention will prevent economies from naturally reverting to private wealth accumulating in a few hands atop a relatively rigid class structure. With the world’s richest 62 people now having more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population, Piketty is clearly onto something. 

Gross income inequality undermines almost everything we strive for. U.K. writers Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, have decades of data to show that in developed countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means that everyone has a higher chance of being happier, healthier and more successful. Developed-world societies that have the greatest disparities of income are those that suffer from the lowest social mobility, lowest life expectancy, lowest literacy levels and the highest rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, imprisonment, violence and lots of other ills – without exception (

Yet in Vancouver, real estate bubble apologists say everything is fine because there’s a large pool of first-time homebuyers with access to windfall real estate wealth. People like Andrew Ramlo, vice-president of market intelligence at Rennie Marketing Systems as quoted in Business in Vancouver:

“‘[The] historical metric of sales price to income is totally blown out of the water,’ Ramlo concluded, noting that 42% of B.C.’s first-time homebuyers receive help from their parents. ‘Let’s stop comparing sales prices to average household income, because it’s a fundamentally stupid metric – we can go buy it.’”

What I hear him saying is: if you’re not already on board, take your measly earned income and shove off. If you want more than scraps in Maple Ridge or Powell River, just dial up the bank of Mom and Dad. It’s fundamentally stupid to worry about the majority of people without access to capital because the glass is 42% full.

Enter the NDP-Green alliance and its bundle of platform promises to tilt the market more toward people earning a living from working rather than investing. Their starting point is cracking down on fraud, money laundering and “speculation.” That could mean implementing the NDP’s proposed 2% tax on properties in Metro Vancouver where owners pay little or no provincial income tax, and possibly the Greens’ proposal to double the 15% foreign-buyers tax to 30% and expand it across the province.

But here’s the rub. Some of the lavish spending on affordable units they are promising ($750 million a year for the Greens) will be harder to achieve if the bubbling housing market’s multitude of tax-producing spinoffs disappear.

It isn’t just landed gentry who benefit from a hot housing market. So do governments. But they also pick up the high costs of an increasingly unequal society. 

Peter Ladner ( is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation’s board of directors.


Staking out the moral high ground in Canada’s energy debate

Understanding “othering,” a theoretical notion studied in the social sciences, could help the petroleum sector connect with Canadians.

Othering is about declaring something or someone to be the “other” and, in so doing, reduce that other’s ability to enjoy the same virtues to which you have laid claim.

“Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this other,” writes British sociology professor Yiannis Gabriel.

Othering can be used to understand so much of what passes for energy discourse in Canada – particularly in terms of tension and polarization – in a sector where the natural sciences sensibilities ought to prevail.

Green energy and clean tech are good examples. Green-energy proponents claim exclusivity over the notion of greenness and by default create the other – a sector (petroleum) that doesn’t share the moral characteristics and attributes of being green.

Othering at its core is about identity creation – development of identity ideals often more utopian than real.

It goes further than simply creating the perfect identity; otherers, as Gabriel argues, reinforce the notion of their virtues by casting aspersions on those they oppose. Thus, by definition, the oil and gas sector’s identity is evil, dirty and malevolent – the opposite of the ideal renewably clean and green persona.

If all this sounds hokey and abstract, think how Canadians talk about energy. Think about how green constituencies are built on the backs of oil and gas and pipeline sectors through denigration and vilification.

Many politicians and activists “other” the petroleum sector, as do the more extremist environmentalists.

When Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson pushes his city council to endorse getting the city off natural gas, he is othering – having laid claim to a moral high ground that is his alone. His implicit contention is that everyone who opposes having the city weaned from natural gas is somehow an environmental pillager.

Othering is well understood by sociologists and anthropologists, but not by reservoir engineers and geologists. The former study people and the ways they think and behave; the latter study rocks and molecules and the ways they react and respond.

That makes a world of difference. Technical folks tend toward algebraic communication; social folks opt for emotive tactics. Ordinary Canadians worry less about how balanced equations do environmental good than about proclamations with no factual backing.

Perhaps this is why the petroleum sector’s cleanness and greenness mostly fail to gain traction beyond the sector, even though industry and government are pouring millions into the sector’s evolution.

In terms of energy choices, we’re in times of profound change. And the sector’s failure to coalesce around a unified message will contribute to its erosion.

The energy sector speaks with too many voices and mixes its messages. Even when the underlying messages are similar, it’s difficult for ordinary folks to understand what petroleum people are trying to say. The sector has its own forms of shrillness and extremism that many find off-putting. And the lack of a unified voice is particularly frustrating for companies and innovators whose own efforts show how far the sector has advanced toward cleaner and greener horizons.

At stake is trust. The otherers are adept at claiming trust, thereby denying it to the other.

The petroleum sector must figure out who the diehard otherers are and who they’re trying to win over – that’s the real audience.

There is no hard and fast boundary between clean energy and petroleum-derived energy. These systems connect between people, products and processes. Here the stories of the petroleum sector’s advances can be found, as well as how energy systems evolve.

Why the sector is not better at elevating those stories and creating trust is a puzzler. Meanwhile, the otherers maintain the upper hand, and the petroleum sector is mired in its own storytelling inertia.

Perhaps a sociologist could help figure it out. 

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.