Written by Andrew Seale
In Toronto, retail runs through the very veins of the city. The PATH, a labyrinthine network of shops from the Queen’s Quay up to College Street (and the world’s largest underground shopping complex), spills outwards to trendy Queen West and the King Street stretch stocked with small businesses carving out niches while the TTC swings further still, extending to the city’s four corners, each punctuated with a major shopping complex.
There’s no question Toronto is a retail city – and where retail thrives, retail evolves.
As that landscape has changed over the past five years, both technologically and physically as new mixed use spaces crop up and neighbourhoods adjust to growing populations, so to have the way small businesses find their home in Toronto.
Advances from retail technology startups that’ve used Toronto as their proving ground has paved the way for sharper insights and more granular data on consumer behaviour, evening the playing field for small businesses.
“For small brick and mortar to survive, main street has to act like big business and it's the digital technologies that are going to allow us to do that,” says Rob Sysak, executive director of the West Queen West Business Improvement Area. The BIA recently tapped Besify, a GTA-based wifi solutions startup, to install free wifi for visitors between Ossington and Bathurst.
Since setting up access points along the strip this past winter, the platform has allowed the BIA to collect data analytics like the duration of connections, how many people connect, which locations are most popular and how strong each device’s signal strength is. The wifi had 4,000 users in the first month.
Fellow Toronto startup AP1 – which gathers foot traffic analytics and engages consumers through apps and beacons, a device that pings smartphones – turned its eye to the harbour, teaming up with the Waterfront BIA during the winter months to try and draw crowds down to the shoreline to visit the area’s “Ice Breaker” public art displays.
AP1 created a scavenger hunt app that interacted with beacons in the exhibits, explains Ryan Dias, director of marketing and client services at the startup and the driving force behind the project.
“Beacons are this polarized vertical right now in the digital space where you’ve either heard nothing about or you're really excited about the capabilities but haven't seen a use case that would excite you to roll it out,” says Dias.
The “Ice Breakers” initiative saw 6,100 visits through the app and nearly 1,000 downloads over a five-week stint – a successful use-case surrounding the power of proximity technology when it comes to driving consumer behaviour.
“There were a lot of really key milestones and notable achievements (with) this app,” says Dias.
In addition to Toronto’s myriad of incubators and accelerators, retail and commerce-focused groups like Kinetic Commerce and Digital Main Street are propping up and supporting the city’s innovative retail technology companies, drawing links between businesses both big and small and finding new ways to thrive in Toronto’s vibrant retail landscape.
There’s no question Toronto – and the innovations built by the city’s startups – will play a critical role in the future of retail technology.
In fact, it already is.
“We need foot traffic, we need business – how do you do that? you've got to keep growing and changing with the times,” adds Sysak.
StartUp Spotlight on: Toronto Retail Technology
We start this series with a look at how the Toronto Waterfront BIA partnered with local startup AP1 to get Torontonians out during the cold winter. Check back to learn about other Toronto-based retail technology companies.