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Business of the Month: Diane Petryna rolls with the changes in retail

From storefront to online, resilient Thunder Bay retailer adjusts to post-pandemic shopping trends
Always evolving Thunder Bay retailer Diane Petryna

Diane Petryna didn’t like what was happening in the retail outdoor adventure market in North America.

So, she decided to change it. She opened Take a Hike in Thunder Bay in 1996, creating an outdoor lifestyle store built specifically to connect with women. Even though stats showed that women were just as active and outdoorsy, everything back then was geared to men — pun intended.

“It was a male perspective on the industry, so it reflected a high level of testosterone,” Petryna said.

“Women’s clothing options weren’t readily available — we were directed to men’s clothing — and footwear options were limited.”

But it was more than that. There were philosophical differences in approach that Petryna wanted to change, too. Whereas most of the marketing back then was focussed on conquering nature, Petryna knew women would react better to a more harmonious philosophy of simply enjoying nature.

“I adopted a different view of the outdoors. It wasn’t who could be ‘the best’ and who could conquer things. The outdoors can feed your spirit, your soul. It can bring you peace and happiness.”

Her idea of “outdoorsy” was also wider and more inclusive than the traditional view, too.

“The most outdoorsy people I know are dog walkers.”

Some might call Petryna a purist in her approach to the retail space. She wanted to fill a void in the market, helping women find quality products. She ran her stores by three codes: quality, connection, and kindness. For many years, that was enough to run a successful business.

But then, the retail landscape changed. Her suppliers started offshoring manufacturing. That led to longer lead times for products. Instead of nine months in advance, she had to order 12 months in advance, which meant she didn’t even know what was going to sell this summer before deciding what to bring in next summer. This shift increased the risk for the retailers in other ways, too. They were asked to purchase orders in full rather than planning to re-up products that were moving that season, with payment due in 60 days.

“The lead-up times you have to place for orders are so counter to what any thinking person could imagine. I’m taking the risk. They’re taking no risk. There’s no partnership anymore.”

Thunder Bay was changing, too. The once-vibrant south core of Fort William was getting left behind by the north core of Port Arthur. She moved with her customers to the Bay and Algoma shopping area — the trendy equivalent of Toronto’s Queen Street. It was also an opportunity to review the changing tastes of customers. Working with a business coach and marketer, Petryna rebranded part of her store as the Take 2 Boutique.

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Ultimately though, retail continued to evolve with more people buying online than in bricks-and-mortar storefronts. A lease renewal led to a tough decision to move once again, back to Fort William. This time though, she purchased an old house and renovated it into a retail space.

That was in 2018. Less than two years later, COVID struck, turning everything upside down. Once again, Petryna had to change things up. 

She quickly implemented curbside pickup and, in the warmer months, she held outdoor markets in her parking lot. Mask use and distancing were always encouraged, but Petryna knew it didn’t have to be at the expense of connection, kindness, and a quality shopping experience.

A side project she launched during the pandemic ultimately took Petryna in a completely new direction.

Despite her lack of tech knowledge — her phone was a BlackBerry at the time and her laptop ran Windows 7 — Petryna launched an experimental livestream shopping show on Facebook Live called “Shopping with Diane”. 

In it, she would feature her retail products, demonstrating and educating.

“I had incredible response after that first show,” Petryna said.

Orders came in through her online store, and she would get them ready for curbside pickup.

Petryna found herself once again ahead of her time. She has been featured for her innovation and ingenuity, including with industry insiders like Oliver Banks in the U.K. and In Store Magazine, a quarterly delivered to 12,000 retailers in North America. Petryna wrote a column for the magazine for a couple of years.

Today, she is on the verge of taking another leap forward: bringing her livestream shopping expertise to wholesalers who want to get their products in front of retailers.

“I’ve had a great response from wholesalers interested in this,” she said. “It is a cost-effective way to connect with retailers.”

There’s that word again: connect. Petryna may be a retailer who’s ahead of her time. But it’s interesting that the way she approaches it is with genuine, old-fashioned concern for her customers and their wellbeing. Quality, connection, kindness. No matter how much retail changes, Petryna is proving those values never go out of style.