Josh Moskowitz earns a six-figure living as a plumbing foreman.
But in freezing Fort McMurray, Alta., a town that exists for the extraction of oil and not much else, "there's not much in the way of nicer, higher-end things," says the 29-year-old, who works for a company helping to expand an oil sands workers' camp.
That's partly why Mr. Moskowitz climbs into his pickup truck once a month and drives the 525 kilometres to Edmonton, home of North America's largest shopping centre – the West Edmonton Mall – where he figures he spends about $5,000 a year on dress shirts, toiletries and upscale outdoor gear for weather that hit -37 C just last week.
He is far from the only resident of the remote region making the trip to the mall: Visitors to its Fantasyland Hotel from Fort McMurray have jumped 243 per cent in the past five years, while the hotel's revenue from them soared 263 per cent in the same period, the mall's data show.
That rush of northern Albertan shoppers hasn't gone unnoticed by the billionaire Ghermezian family, which owns the centre. The mall increasingly touts its Fantasyland Hotel, water park, skating rink and artificial lake to residents of northern towns such as Fort McMurray, betting the marketing will help woo a potentially lucrative and burgeoning clientele.
A new campaign trumpets Fantasyland with the slogan "closer than you think," positioning it as an experience similar to going to Las Vegas – the mall houses a casino – and touts retailer brands that are unavailable elsewhere nearby.
"West Edmonton Mall becomes their weekend getaway," mall president David Ghermezian says. "They come to eat, drink and spend money. There are a lot of single guys. They have a lot of disposable income."
And to cater to a wealthier customer base, West Edmonton Mall is trying to attract more upscale retailers, with talks under way with chains ranging from U.S. department-store purveyor Nordstrom Inc. to fashion powerhouse Burberry, industry insiders say. It's betting that changing the face of the mall will help move it further from its customer base of government employees in the provincial capital city, adding to the already almost 50 per cent of its visitors who are tourists.
"West Edmonton Mall has ridden on the coattails of the Alberta success story – it's been a marriage made in heaven," says Michael Kehoe, a retail real estate specialist at Fairfield Commercial in Calgary. "It's an ideal spot for a young resource worker to come and blow off some cash and have some fun."
Today, about 9 per cent of the mall's tourism marketing budget is allocated to Fort McMurray residents, including social media marketing, billboards, airport signs and direct mailings, compared with about 6 per cent just a few years ago, says Anna Alfonso, vice-president of marketing at the mall.
Even as the oil sands grapple with revenue worries over softening prices, consumer spending from the region is showing no sign of slowing. Retailing in general is a top beneficiary of individual income generated from oil sands production – and retail accounted for 22.4 per cent of the total income generation, according to a recent study by the Conference Board of Canada.
Mr. Ghermezian is counting on enticing more people like Mr. Moskowitz from the oil sands hubs. Fantasyland Hotel is welcoming younger men who shop for premium jeans, sports equipment and even luxury watches for their girlfriends.
The Ghermezians are pouring $100-million into upgrading the mall, including chandeliers and Italian floor tiles. By this spring the centre will welcome a U.S. cheap chic Target Corp. store. The family is hunting for other enticing banners, using its connections to major international chains through its ownership of the destination Mall of America in Minnesota.
West Edmonton Mall's research has found that people coming from northern Alberta make up almost 15 per cent of shoppers at the mall, a percentage its says is growing although it hasn't done a previous survey.
Peter Simons, president of Quebec-based La Maison Simons, which launched its first store outside of Quebec at West Edmonton Mall last fall, has been surprised by the large number of people from his province who work in the oil sands and come to Simons on weekends. "West Edmonton Mall caters well to them."