COLUMN: In business, the only constant is change

The retail industry is shifting dramatically, and a story by Black Press Media reporter Tom Zytaruk – which was published in last Friday’s Peace Arch News – rekindled memories of how change is not a new thing. It’s a constant.

The story talked about a number of store closures in Surrey by several big companies that have either downsized or gone out of business entirely in recent years. It began with the closure of the Rona store in Newton, one of a number across the country shut down by the company. It closed permanently on Jan. 26.

Many years ago, that particular store was known as Lumberland. It was part of a local chain of building material and hardware stores, and was quite successful. The combined buying power of a group of stores and their larger size, as opposed to the smaller stores of their individually-owned competitors, gave the chain a number of advantages.

In 1980, their stores and many other retailers were facing a number of challenging circumstances. Sky-high interest rates, high unemployment numbers, increased competition from U.S. retailers and a number of other factors were putting on a lot of pressure.

There was an opportunity though, and it came from an unlikely source – the provincial Social Credit government. The party was long known for a conservative approach to laws regulating business, particularly when morality could be involved. The party had changed under former premier Bill Bennett. Provinces had options as to how they administered the federal Lord’s Day Act, which restricted most businesses from opening Sundays. Sunday shopping presented an intriguing possibility.

The Bennett government passed a law saying that it would be up to local municipalities to decide if they were ready to allow Sunday shopping, and that citizens had to approve that idea in a referendum.

In those days, Surrey had local elections every year, with half of council elected for two-year terms. Surrey council decided to put the matter to referendum in the November 1980 election.

Lumberland and many other retailers jumped on board and placed a flood of advertising urging people to vote for open Sundays. Other groups argued for the status quo.

The election, which did not include a race for mayor (which usually boosted turnout), saw more than 40 per cent of Surrey voters show up at the polls, a high-water mark that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been achieved since that time. Sunday shopping was approved, and is now so accepted that people can hardly believe that at one time it was forbidden.

That’s how business changes. Sunday openings have given retailers some additional advantages – and challenges. Now, online retail is creating other challenges. Online competition is a reality for all businesses, from publishing to the taxi industry.

It is not easy running a business – big or small. Change is inevitable, and businesses constantly have to adjust. The latest round of store closings is simply a part of that ongoing adjustment.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca

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