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To spend or not to spend

As the old adage goes, there is nothing like a bit of "retail therapy" to burst people out of a rut, or the blues, or anything else we seek to escape when shopping calls.

As the old adage goes, there is nothing like a bit of "retail therapy" to burst people out of a rut, or the blues, or anything else we seek to escape when shopping calls.

This weekend is as good as any to indulge with the Turkey Sale, Cornish Game Hen sales, sidewalk sales - you name it, it's on sale.

And it strikes me that Whistler needs a break for a few days from the pressing affairs of state.

Over the course of the last several years Thanksgiving has become one of the most important weekends for Whistler retailers, but there can be little doubt that the current economic climate is going to have an impact on shoppers.

And it's likely that many who used to drive up for the sales and enjoy all the good deals on accommodation will instead just spend the day - not overnight - thanks to our greatly improved highway.

That, too, is part of our new reality.

Shopping is an oft-ignored part of the Whistler visitor experience, I feel. Locals bemoan the fact that we don't have the choices needed for family living and we question if we have the right mix for the visitor.

Just think back to the long drawn-out debate on whether a London Drugs "box-store" should have been allowed to locate in the village. After much discussion the idea was shelved and we have instead a more modest Shoppers Drug Mart with a large portion of the store given over to luxury perfumes and make-up - aimed obviously at the tourist.

In recent stories about how Whistler might capitalize on the Chinese tourist the resort's offerings have also come under scrutiny.

Chinese tourists, we are told, are all about the "brands" such as Coach, Louis Vuitton, Guess and more. Without that shopping experience in multiple, big venues they just aren't going to want to stay and spend their money here.

The problem is that type of experience really doesn't jibe with the authentic Whistler brand. We are all about the mountains, clean air, recreation.

But aren't we also about indulgence? Just look at the array of luxury hotels we boast, from the Fairmont Chateau Whistler to the Four Seasons brand - these are top-of-the-line experiences.

Perhaps it is about size - if the Chanel store is small it fits, but if the square footage is expansive then it is not acceptable. But I think it is much more than that. We have always wanted retail outlets that personify the town - kind of funky, unique - we've wanted business owners lending their stores as part of the personality of the town.

But over the years the inevitable has happened and we have seen typical brands creep in - TNA, Lululemon, Gap and more. Don't get me wrong, they are popular and people shop in them all the time.

That's interesting considering in 2006 a Whistler retail survey commissioned by the Resort Municipality found that visitors and residents alike supported character stores while big-brand stores were not the first choice.

The survey also highlighted the need for competitive pricing - so visitors wouldn't feel like they were being gouged. Many surveyed felt the price-point for food and goods was too high.

Community-wide recommendations included the creation of distinct retail identities, a rental strategy that offered variable rental rates by season, improved directional and wayfinding, non-retail anchors to induce foot traffic, increased seating and style of seating, and more programming. It also recommended "that no retail space be added nor any additional liquor primary licensing be supported," and lays out what the municipality can do in terms of policies and projects to enhance the retail performance.

The study also found that Whistler, in general, has a great deal of retail space. However, the space is not focused and is widely dispersed, with some areas being over-merchandized and some areas poorly anchored.

Interestingly, the survey predicted that the typical shopper would move away from being the destination visitor to a guest that was predominantly from the northwest of North America  - how true. I wonder if the RMOW still has the crystal ball it used in the survey as it may be even more useful now as the community continues to chart the uncertain waters of a global recession.

As the resort moved through the Olympics, many retailers faced challenges over rent, a volatile tourist economy and sheer uncertainty over what business in Whistler is going to look like over the coming years.

Pique reports this week that some business owners feel that the municipality makes it tough to do business here. They are looking for less red tape and more support from the Hall if "character" stores and eateries are to survive.

Maybe we don't have the luxury anymore of being picky about who fills up vacant retail spots, or maybe we can't afford not to be selective as we try and work toward the winning combination for shoppers who come from both near and far.

What can be generally agreed upon is that community leaders need to engage the business community in charting the way forward, after all more than three-quarters of dinning and shopping expenditures are made by visitors. Maybe it's time for leaders to listen to the Business Enhancement Committee?

There can be no escape from the reality that shopping is a crucial part of the tourism equation.