City of Peterborough Shopping Survey: Are you buying what this survey is selling?

By Kim Zippel –

The Official Plan for the City of Peterborough is the mother of all documents for our city because it contains the blueprint of our vision of how to develop our lands, and protect them; what we build, where we build, and how we build; our transportation choices, recreational opportunities and economic potential.  Basically all of the governing policies that allow us to enact our vision for the present and future of our city are contained within this plan, and most importantly, so are the ideals that impact every facet of your daily life.

A great deal of effort and tax dollars have been allocated to ensure that the citizens of Peterborough have a say in any changes to the city’s official plan – remember the Plan It Peterborough official plan revision workshops circa 2011?

The logo for the Plan It Peterborough report.
The 2011 Official Plan review consultation phase was called Plan It Peterborough.

Two years later,  in March of 2013, a special public meeting was held to mark the end of the Plan It Peterborough consultation phase and to announce the beginning of policy renewal. This was to be the applied part of the review process wherein staff use the common vision crafted during the Plan It Peterborough  process to amend the plan. The notion being that we can begin subsequent projects with the confidence that Official Plan polices are guided by the ideas put forth by the people of Ptbo, ideas that we felt would help our city become more functional, attractive, healthier and wealthier!

Now jump to 2015, and the current shopping survey, designed by a consulting firm, to inform our still as yet unrevised Official Plan on how much, and where, we consume.

As reported by the Examiner on October 1, which in turn quoted our planning division’s manager Ken Hetherington, “the data (from the survey) will be used as the city develops an overhaul of its Official Plan”.  As you have likely deduced by now, the overhaul has gone into overtime. We can only surmise that previous years of input and consultation suffered a gap in that no one asked, “So, where do you buy your groceries?” Spoiler alert: the farmer’s market is not a choice in the survey.

Designed by the consulting firm urbanMetrics Inc., a market, economics, and strategic real estate advisory firm, the Peterborough City shopping survey leads you through a biased, one dimensional questionnaire that ignores the importance of the local and regional economy in addition to focusing on big box stores to the detriment of local and smaller retail businesses.  

Bias: I took this survey four times, and it let me. To be honest, the first three times were repetitive actions driven by my disbelief upon being booted out of the survey because I said that I wasn’t the primary shopper in the home. Ultimately, I fibbed so that I could continue on and record my shopping preferences (even though my husband does the majority of our routine purchasing). Since I tend to spend more money on fewer purchases, I thought my input important.  I shop for clothing, jewelry, home improvement and gardening items, whereas my husband spends more time shopping for the necessities, but he spends less money: Me big ticket, him practical items. A primary shopper could refer to the amount of money spent, or the amount of time spent shopping, and a comprehensive approach to discerning consumer patterns should consider both.

Furthermore, targeting one consumer in a home disregards the diversity in residential living arrangements. Shared accommodations are common in our community and I live in a neighbourhood where many 20 to 30 year-olds rent rooms in what was once defined as a single family dwelling.  So asking respondents if they are the primary shopper in their home just isn’t an inclusive, or informative question.

Importance of the Regional Economy:  The survey immediately asked me if I was a permanent, as opposed to a seasonal resident.  I answered permanent, and then a map of the City that excluded the Greater Peterborough Area (GPA) was produced to help me answer subsequent questions.  The GPA was not an available selection when defining where city residents shop.  For example, under the home improvement category, I wanted to enter a recent, large purchase of flooring that I bought outside of the city at Monaghan Lumber.  Since indicating a regional purchase wasn’t one of the options given in the survey,  I had to pick the option “somewhere else in Ontario” which unfortunately will  not indicate to anyone that I was trying to buy locally in Peterborough County.  

Focus on Big Box Stores:  The survey walked me through the differing categories of consumer spending. For example, “supermarkets and grocery” was a category.  Now granted, the categories likely came from Statistics Canada, but the prompts from the survey program were part of the urbanMetrics design and were focused exclusively on big box, corporate chains. So when you are in the supermarkets and grocery portion of the survey you are prompted to think of Sobeys, Costco or the Real Canadian Superstore. Then you are asked to approximate how much you spend in each outlet.  I got so caught up quizzing my husband ‘Mark the Primary Shopper’ that I forgot to enter information about the farmer’s market under the ‘other’ selection. Leaving out this information is really misleading because our family places a high priority on supporting local farms, reducing waste and the carbon footprint of our food.  And it isn’t just our family.  In March of 2013 the Peterborough Social Planning Council found that 94% of the 538 persons responding to their survey on local food  had purchased local food within the 6 month period preceding the survey with farmer’s markets being the number one retail source.


A photo of the front page of the Peterborough Social Planning Council's 2013 report on local food in the greater Peterborough area. The page features a picture of strawberries being sold at a farmer's market.
The Peterborough Social Planning Council prepared a report on local food in the the Peterborough region in 2013. Will the Social Planning Council’s report help us amend  Official Plan policies that deal with annexing farmland, buying local and living sustainably?

You have to wonder, as the urbanMetrics Inc. survey is meant to advise land use policy in our Official Plan Review, did urbanMetrics staff even read our Plan It Peterborough report prior to designing  said survey?   And it’s not like this consultant is unfamiliar with Peterborough.  In 2009,  a report – City of Peterborough Market Analysis – was release by the same firm to, “justify the need for additional retail space in Peterborough” and quantify our retail and service commercial needs until 2026.  

The title page from the urbanMetrics 2009 retail market analysis report featuring an aerial photo of downtown Peterborough.
The title page from the urbanMetrics inc. 2009 retail market analysis report prepared for the City of Peterborough.

Well, you might say, things have changed since 2009 and economic change can influence spending habits.  But what if those spending patterns arise from our core values: Will they still be altered by an economic downturn?  

Is separating the quantitative (how much we spend and where we spend it) from the qualitative (what informs our choices) appropriate, and will this methodology give our planning department credible data with which to make changes in our Official Plan that reflect our vision for land use and growth?

The following are excerpts from the March 2013 city staff report presented at the special public meeting that was supposed to wrap up the public consultation phase of the Official Plan review.  First and foremost the report states that the plan reflects community values.  The following are some of the value based changes the citizens of Peterborough wanted to see reflected in their Official Plan:

  • context appropriate intensification of the downtown and commercial corridors;
  • high urban design in both the private and public realm;
  • improved connectivity and mobility;
  • reduced dependency on the private automobile; and
  • a community of compact, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods with opportunities for playing, working, shopping, entertainment and community uses.

Even the urbanMetrics 2009 market analysis concluded that we should, “seek opportunities that enhance the availability of local serving retail facilities at the neighbourhood level thoughout the City.”  

Does this sound like a vision that includes urban sprawl and consequently more roads to help us navigate between big box stores?

Did we change so much in our core values that we need to be consulted yet again,  just in case?  

Or,  is this a case of “we don’t like the answer, so we’ll keep asking the question over, and over, and over again until we get the response we do want?  Even if that response is obtained from a vague and potentially misleading public survey.

And just when I was huffing and mumbling my way to the finale,  up came the opportunity to enter a draw for a Tim Horton’s gift card tacked on to the end.  So I entered because who doesn’t love Timmy’s, but perhaps with a little thought and effort a local entrepreneur, or five (one from each ward) could have been sourced to  provide gift certificates.

My rant against a never ending revision process that has brought tears of frustration to many wishing to see new policies advise the development of the past four years, has now come to an end.

Now ask yourselves, citizens of Otonabee Ward, are you ready to buy what this shopping survey was selling?

Useful links and notes:

At the time of writing this blog post, the urbanMetrics online survey had been closed out.

Plan It Peterborough: Official Plan Review Draft Policy Directions Report

Official Plan Review: Plan It Peterborough, Phase One Completion

Local Food and What We Think About Buying


4 thoughts on “City of Peterborough Shopping Survey: Are you buying what this survey is selling?”

  1. This oversimplified survey focuses only on large retailers (franchises, big box stores) and ignores the biggest driver of Peterborough’s economy – small and medium-sized businesses. More taxes come from that sector than the other. More jobs are there too. A recent symposim called “Strong Towns,” attended by some City staff, showed how a municipality reaps more income from the density of a block of small/medium busineses in a downtown core than from one big box outfit.
    If Peterborough Economic Development’s strategic aim of supporting a more regional economy is to be met, then our municipal Official Plan will have to get with the times and support local businesses, not promote outside businesses at their expense.
    There is proof that locally-owned businesses and their customers retain money in the community to circulate over and over. Most revenue of big box and externally-owned businesses’ drains right out of the community daily as profits go to unnamed investors and HQs not located in Canada.
    So let’s have a Survey that includes local businesses & farmers markets equally with others and show this community that they and their loyal customers are not just chopped liver!

  2. Kim has done an excellent analysis of the deficiencies in that survey. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. I have experienced the same sort of frustration lately in doing other surveys. I did an online one the other day, from Probit I believe it was. The survey was on the usefulness of realtors and of course was designed to make the respondents believe that realtors were indispensable for buying/selling homes. Nowhere was there an opportunity to comment on the percentage fees that they charge, and to me those fees are way out of line! That the issue I think of first when I think of realtors, not “did they make you feel comfortable?” type of question. I said so in the “comment” section at the end, but i doubt if that counts for much. Similarly your shopping in Peterborough survey pushed you to certain choices, ignoring the broader picture. I shop almost exclusively in small businesses, use Buy the Bushel for fresh produce and to support local farmers, go to the Farmers’ Market all the time and am delighted we’ve got another downtown butcher!
    I think these kinds of surveys deliberately ignore the growing desire of citizens to connect with their neighbourhoods precisely because they are afraid of losing their “market share”. Thanks for doing this response to the survey you took, Kim!

  3. There are a few “rules” in life, that reflect the fact that “Those who win the war, get to write the history books.” When the lawyer states, “Just answer the question. Yes or no.” he already knows the answer. The lawyer controls the dialogue. What appears to be conversation, becomes a monologue, with the “Amen!” inserted at the appropriate points.
    A survey can be just as one-sided as that conversation. The questions on a survey are important. The options to pick from, as answers, are more so. The statistical analysis of the numbered questions is interesting. However, who conducted the survey? Who paid for it? The cohort that was surveyed, these are the greater questions. So often, those who sponsor & write the survey are those who determine the analysis.
    To me, the relevant data of most surveys is the part that is not included in the summation. To each question, how many times was “other” ticked? How many times was “other” specified? What were all the comments written in on the last page?

  4. Reply to first 3 comments

    First off, how exciting to have three thoughtful commentaries submitted! As everyone seemed to have similar concerns with the online shopping survey, I thought that I would reply to all of you through a new comment.

    If I have understood your analyses correctly, I see several key areas of improvement that can be fed back to the planning department.

    It seems that each of us has concerns that questions posed were off the mark with respect to future land use planning because 1) the questions were focused on present patterns that focused on commercial chains, so that shoppers preferring small, locally owned business or producers could not sufficiently inform our future commercial retail development, and 2) questions failed to tie the importance of the local economy to our Official Plan land use policies.

    To address land use policies, I might also conclude from the discussion, that questions addressing the broader picture were needed.

    For example:

    • questions that elicit information regarding land use versus food production;
    • that examine people’s understanding of what shopping local actually means;
    • the need to consider the multiplier-effect of shopping local, and
    • questions that confirm a citizen desire for infill and repurposing of vacant properties to provide for accessible shopping at the neighbourhood level.

    I also noted, that upon completing the survey, we all experienced the same feeling of being led to a pre-determined conclusion. As David pointed out, we don’t want to be asked a question if the answer is preordained! And as citizens, we should be partners in the conversation that informs our Official Plan as opposed to party to a monologue.

    As a last reflection, I believe that it is the contrast in styles of consultation between Plan It Peterborough and the Online Shopping survey that has generated so much concern with the former being very qualitative, inclusive, and allowing for complex connections between the economy, social issues and community building; while the latter was seen to be oversimplified, leading and biased.

    The best possible outcome of this conversation is for the planning department to share the collective concern expressed over the style of this survey with the consultant who designed it. I know that planning will be interested in your thoughts because they are striving to ensure that any amendments to our Official Plan are robust, backed by credible data, and designed to improve our community.

    I will be sure to send the link to this post and your comments to Ken Hetherington, the DBIA, the Chamber, and Peterborough Economic Development.

    Thank you for taking the time to engage with this post, and I look forward to your future input!

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