The Box Store Paradox

Over in the Toronto Skyscrapers Forum, they were talking about big box stores like Home Depot and Ikea and how they can’t function in the downtown core (they need too much parking, as most patrons come by car). Some disparaging remarks were made about Ikea, and since my best furniture purchases ever have come from Ikea, I thought I’d speak in defence of the store. However, I had to admit that most people (including myself, Mr. Transit Advocate) bring a car to shop at Ikea. But when you buy furniture anywhere, and you’re at a serious disadvantage if you don’t have a car.

I remember once (it must have been ten years ago) when my father and I purchased a desk from the Idomo at Sheppard and Dufferin and tried to bring it home. This was before Downsview station opened, so we had to rely on the Wilson Heights bus to get to Wilson station.

I don’t care what people tell you. Particle board is HEAVY. And even though they disassembled everything and put it in a nice flat box, it was tricky getting it around the various poles on the New Look GM bus that arrived at our stop. Fortunately, the driver was a good natured sort, and didn’t chew us out for delaying the bus by several minutes as we struggled to get the d*mn thing on. Taking the package from the North Terminal of Wilson to the subway platform was an arduous task, requiring several rest stops on the long corridor. At Queen’s Park station, we called ahead to my mother and asked her to bring the wheelbarrow from our house on McCaul Street.

Now that I’m in Kitchener, we use the Ikea in Burlington. Of course, we have little choice but to drive. The parking lot is, by far, the worst part of the shopping experience. Despite being at least as large as a Canadian football field, it’s always packed, you often have to walk some distance to get to the front doors, and they have had to hire police officers to direct traffic every time we’ve been there. But I like Ikea, and I will not change my shopping habits.

The big box stores are a phenomenon that aren’t going to go away. They offer too much selection and too nice a price for me to avoid them. That being said, some box stores have a knack of appealing to me more than others. I have no problem with Home Depot. It may be an American company draining business away from Home Hardware, it offers me courteous service, good prices, and a good overall experience. Home Hardware is responding by becoming bigger and boxier itself. On the other hand, I LOATHE Walmart. I don’t know if it’s something in the air, or the feeling of barely contained violence on the part of the staff and the other customers, or the fact that Walmart is one of North America’s worst corporate citizens, but I am quite happy to not buy stuff from this store if I can help it.

I don’t know how furniture was purchased in the past, but today it goes much easier if you have a car. Erin and I just bought a dresser from Ikea, and I would have had an Idomo-like story to tell you if I had to take it home back onto the subway. On the other hand, there are other box stores which can thrive in a downtown setting. Staples/Business Depot, for instance. You don’t need a car to lug home office supplies or computers. I’ve seen Business Depot and Future Shop do very well in downtown locations with little parking, and entrances that respected the streetscape.

Ikea might do well in the Eaton Centre in Downtown Toronto if it allowed its customers easy access to the parking garage so that they wouldn’t have to lug their purchases too far. But urban advocate though I am, I’d have to say that big items such as furniture and lumber may have to go to the edges of our city for the foreseeable future.

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