Downtown stores will now be able to serve shoppers until 8 p. m. on weekends, following a provincial decision that city officials say will help Montreal merchants better compete against suburban malls.
"Downtown merchants have faced a lot of hardships. We increased the cost of parking meters and we expanded the hours for using parking meters," said Andre Poulin, executive director of Destination Centreville which represents downtown merchants.
"So we’re happy that there’s now some good news for them."
Yesterday the Quebec government announced it has given about 3,000 merchants -from Atwater Ave. in the West to just past Papineau Ave., along Ste. Catherine St. -a five year exemption to a provincial law that requires stores to shut their doors by 6 p.m. on Saturdays and 5 p.m. on Sundays.
City officials say downtown was targeted because of the large number of tourists in the area, yet there are no plans to extend store hours in other neighbourhoods that attract visitors, like Old Montreal and the Plateau.
"For the moment, what we want to do is to help the merchants who are working downtown," said Richard Deschamps, the city executive committee member responsible for economic development, roads and infrastructure.
Quebec’s decision follows an 18-month pilot project that wrapped up in May and has already created a smorgasbord of weekend closing hours on Ste. Catherine St.
For example, BCBG Max Azria Canada Inc.’s two downtown boutiques now stay open until 8 p.m. on weekends, while cheap chic retailer H&M closes its flagship store on Ste. Catherine St. W. at 7 p.m. on Saturdays and 6 p.m. on Sundays.
"I think it’s great," said Jennifer Howe, a government employee who lives downtown.
"I find being open until 8 p.m. makes a lot of sense. I’ve been kicked out of stores, especially when there’s a lot of people still shopping and you ask yourself: ‘Why?’
"I don’t like being restricted to those hours."
While several downtown shoppers like Howe said they are delighted by the prospect of later store hours, a number of merchants told The Gazette that they don’t plan to stay open until 8 p.m. this weekend.
Veteran retailer Robert Ohannessian, 52, said he won’t keep his store, Varo Robert, open until 8 p.m. on Saturday -he’s closed on Sunday -because he runs his Ste. Catherine St. W. boutique himself, and can’t fathom working any more hours. Indeed, the idea of amending the provincial law -which was originally designed to give workers a family life -is benefiting the growing number of cheap-chic chain stores opening downtown that can afford to hire employees to work later hours, he said.
Since his mainly executive clientele doesn’t shop for expensive suits on weekend evenings, Ohannessian said the later store hours will drive more traffic for lower-priced apparel on Ste. Catherine St.
"I have no life already. You want me to kill myself with an 80 hour week?" he asked.
Other retailers said they don’t have the evening demand to warrant extended weekend hours.
"It’s great that we have the option," said Cristelle Basmaji, spokesperson for the Canadian women’s apparel chain Boutique Jacob Inc, which has its flagship store downtown. "But for us, right now, it doesn’t make sense to stay open until 8 p.m. Currently, our stores are busiest between noon and 5 p.m. on weekends. Traffic declines considerably after 5:30 p.m., mainly because our customers are getting ready for an outing at a restaurant or a family dinner at home.
"But let’s see our customer response. If we find that she wants to shop later then we could change our strategy."
Indeed, what’s key is giving retailers the ability to set their store hours based on demand in their particular area, said Gaston Lafleur, president of the Conseil Quebecois du commerce de detail.
Lafleur noted that municipalities can ask Economic Development Minister Clement Gignac for an exemption to the law governing store hours.
"What’s interesting to note is that when the need exists the government is willing to make exceptions."