VANCOUVER -- COVID-19 store-closures have forced shoppers to turn to online retailers. That has stores with brick-and-mortar locations wondering if they will come back when the pandemic is over. 

“I think the convenience of going digital and ordering these things and they show up really quickly, I think that’s going to mean that some of these behaviors are going to stick around for the long term,” said Kate White, a professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia.

“COVID is putting us right on the precipice of a total retail apocalypse,” said retail analyst David Ian Gray. “We’ll probably have fewer stores.”

If retailers decide not to re-open or find there aren’t enough customers to keep a brick-and-mortar location and end up closing for good, it would leave shopping districts with a glut of vacant storefronts.

“What used to be a very dominant position for landlords to basically dictate, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do in our space and how much you’re going to pay us,’ I think that may be shifting overnight,” said Gray, who believes tenants will be in the driver’s seat when negotiating leases.

“I think landlords are going to obviously want to have their spaces occupied, rather than vacant,” said Charles Gautier, the CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.

He’d also like to see cities give stores a break on their property taxes. If retailers can reduce their expenses, he’s optimistic shoppers will return.

“I suspect people will still want to do that in-person shopping experience,” said Gautier. But he believes it will look different for the foresee able future.

“I do think we’re entering a totally new era of in-store shopping that’s not going to be the same as before.”

If retailers do end up vacating their physical spaces and concentrating on digital sales, it would drastically change our shopping districts.

“What will our streets look like?” White wondered. “Because they’re often lined with stores, and what’s going to happen those spaces? I think that’s a really interesting question.”

“We want to feel like we’re in a place that has vibrancy and has success happening, and not boarded up street fronts,” said Gray.

Many stores have removed their inventory and covered their windows with plywood during the pandemic closures. Shoppers will ultimately decide if that plywood is permanent.