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Wednesday, October 22, 2008, - Okotoks, Alberta - Shoppers at the newly expanded Super Wal-Mart in Okotoks, AB on Wednesday, October 22, 2008. Photo by Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail Story details: Liz Westman had reason to be anxious when Wal-Mart set up shop in Okotoks, Alta., in late 2002. Within a year of the giant discounter opening at the other end of town, sales at her home decor store dipped almost 10 per cent. It was the classic so-called Wal-Mart effect: Business began to shift to the newcomer and away from the town's main street, where her store is located. Ms. Westman, however, responded swiftly. She ditched products in her store that were also carried at Wal-Mart, such as picture frames and candles. Instead, she returned to her shop's higher end roots of custom window coverings and one-of-a-kind sofas and chairs. Sales at Homeworks Custom Interiors recovered, and have since doubled to about $1-million a year, she says. Now she and other Okotoks merchants are steeling themselves for the next onslaught. As it is doing in communities across Canada, Wal-Mart is dramatically expanding its Okotoks store, transforming it into a Supercentre with an even wider array of home furnishings and other items, and a full supermarket. The move comes just as retailers across Canada brace for what could be the toughest holiday season in two decades amid the global financial meltdown.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

It was furnace filters and diapers – the stuff of life that nobody particularly enjoys shopping for – that put Sean Neville on the path to his newest startup. A serial entrepreneur and, at the time, a father of young children, Mr. Neville found himself forgetting to pick up staples that he should have been able to predict the need for, and driving around at odd hours to get them. His solution: RecurBox, a service that makes a regular shipment of non-perishable goods to your door, stocked with a customized roster of recurring items.

"Nobody gets excited about buying filters," says Mr. Neville, on the phone from his firm's office in Oakville, Ont. "Sorry, filter people."

With RecurBox, users specify what they want, and how often they want it: Batteries might come semi-annually, while leaf bags might arrive just once a year, in the fall. Toothpaste, toiletries, and breakfast cereals might be requested on a more regular basis.

"You do that, and our system determines what needs to be shipped in that month box. If there's nothing to be shipped, we just don't ship anything."

Before shipping, RecurBox will send an e-mail reminding the customer of what's on the way, and asking if there's anything they'd like to add. The package then goes out via Canada Post. An $8 flat fee applies per shipment, be it large or small, but there are no memberships or membership fees.

The RecurBox model sprang from the proliferation of monthly-box services that have been growing for years, both online and off. Weekly boxes of organic produce, paid for by subscription, have become common sights in cities like Toronto, while online services have been promising weekly deliveries of everything from pet supplies to razor blades.

"I saw this and I thought, this is great, but why don't I just aggregate it all?" says Mr. Neville.

Mr. Neville says RecurBox, which launched mid-January, currently employs about a dozen people in full– and part-time positions, and raised about $600,000 in angel seed funding.

A former Bay Street trader, Mr. Neville came to this startup with a background in online retail: He was the founder of Simply Audiobooks, a large audiobook-rental service, which he launched in 2003 and later sold. Today, he concurrently runs two other online stores that focus on niche markets like business books, which share a 10,000 square-foot warehouse facility.

But niche markets are just that; Neville is betting that RecurBox is a business with room to grow – if he can adjust Canadians' purchasing habits.

"I'm trying to change consumer behaviour, and consumer behaviour is ingrained: driving to the grocery store," he says. "My competition is the way we've been doing things for decades."

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