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The Body Shop’s Canadian woes seem to reek of parent-company mismanagement. The closure of 33 stores and the accompanying layoffs of more than 200 people are not simply a result of changing shopping habits, court documents suggest, but of a corporate system that has deprived the Canadian arm of the company of cash.

It seems a particularly cruel path to irrelevance for a company built on the ethos of being socially responsible and cruelty-free.

Founder Anita Roddick, who opened her first store in Brighton, England, in 1976, “wanted to start a new kind of business – one that used business as a force for good,” The Body Shop website explains.

Ahead of her time, the late Dame Roddick offered nature-forward skincare products in hand-pumped refillable bottles (as a part-time Body Shop employee in the 1980s, I personally hand-filled gazillions of them; I can still smell the vanilla body cream and the orange spice shampoo). She was a social justice pioneer who used her stores as a soapbox to decry animal testing and domestic violence, and advocate for fair trade and environmental responsibility, long before the term greenwashing was invented. The company went public in 1984 and grew into a global behemoth.

Kate Black: For generations of teens, malls meant freedom. But as they decline, are they really worth mourning?

For Gen Xers and Millennials in the 1980s and ‘90s, The Body Shop was a mainstay of weekend mall visits; a sweet-smelling and guilt-free (no animal testing) introduction to skin and body care. Over the decades, it remained a pleasant sensory experience without the olfactory assault of a Lush outlet, or the blinding lights and pumping soundtrack of a Sephora (where a cloak of invisibility seems to accompany many of my demographic peers anyway).

The Body Shop may no longer be the flavour of the month, but its decline stings, and feels like yet another nail in retail’s coffin.

On Vancouver’s Robson Street, the main downtown shopping stretch, the Club Monaco recently closed. The Gap is long gone. The gigantic Victoria’s Secret could not even hang on until Valentine’s Day; the enormity of the papered-over space (formerly an HMV, R.I.P.) now standing like a giant question mark about the future of retail – amplified by the shuttered Nordstrom, two blocks east.

With this in mind, I set out this week to buy some bedsheets at The Bay. I was going to vote for bricks-and-mortar with my wallet. At the downtown Vancouver location, the basement access from the SkyTrain station was closed, so shoppers must travel outside to get back inside. Once there, I found the escalator out of service. A sign directed me to a different one, which I took to the second floor. But then the escalator to floor three was out of commission. I returned to the first bank. Not operational. Okay, I’ll take an elevator, I figured. Out of service, the sign said. It directed me to the stairwell. If I wanted those sheets, I was going to have to walk up three flights of stairs just to have a look.

This is why people buy stuff online, I grumbled to myself as I exited the store.

When I Googled The Bay to find a media spokesperson to ask about this, up came a Vancouver Sun article dated Jan. 11, describing the same experience. So it’s been like that for two months? (The spokesperson told me repairs have been planned and delayed, but are expected to happen in the near future.)

Stores open and close, of course. I grew up shopping at Thrifty’s, Fairweather and Le Château, while my mother preferred Eaton’s and Simpsons. We would stop for lunch in between.

But what’s happening now is a sea change. The IRL retail experience is losing out to the cyber temptress that is online shopping. Remote work is escalating the decline, with changing habits changing the face of our downtowns.

According to the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, downtown traffic in many major cities has not returned to pre-COVID levels. As of 2023, Montreal’s downtown traffic was only at 67 per cent of 2019 levels, with Toronto’s at 70 and Vancouver’s at 85.

It feels even less robust than that in Vancouver. This is purely anecdotal, but three of the four Starbucks in close proximity to my office are gone. Both of my go-to lunch spots have closed (R.I.P. Hubbub and Basil Box).

Twin bedsheets in the requested colour scheme can easily be found online, but you lose something when shopping becomes a transaction rather than an activity (that might involve spending no money, in fact). You can’t wander from store to store with your mom, sister or BFF. You can’t smell the green apple glycerin soap or get that tingly feeling from the peppermint foot cream on your computer. At least not yet.

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