Janet Smith likes to think she’s an optimistic person. But running an independent clothing store, from one wave of the pandemic to the next, has only made things for her increasingly baleful.
She knows Manitobans mean well and that there’s been a big push to shop locally and support smaller shops during COVID-19. "Has that translated to income though? To be quite honest, not really," she said.
"There’s days and days where not a single soul walks into the concourse," the co-owner of Appareo Fashion Boutique in downtown Winnipeg told the Free Press. "Even now, after restrictions have eased, it’s skeleton crews working here and there. Foot traffic seems like a thing of the past."
The data show Smith’s boutique is not alone.
At least 60 per cent of consumers say they’ve been spending less at small businesses during the pandemic and more at big-box stores or online giants, according to a new public opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Across Manitoba, small businesses remain in a precarious position, with only 35 per cent making normal sales and 41 per cent fully staffed — among the lowest numbers nationwide, as of late June.
In Winnipeg, things are much more dire. Around 80 per cent of people say they’ve spent relatively less at local shops in the last year, while 60 per cent said they’ve spent a whole lot less, suggest new figures from Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
Of all the spending Winnipeggers did over the last year, only between 10 and 20 per cent of it was done at downtown businesses. And while one-half of people in the city did visit a retail store downtown, only about 10 per cent of their overall retail spending was done at a downtown shop.
Still, according to the CFIB, shopping locally remains important to people from coast to coast. About nine in 10 Canadians say they wish they could do more to support small businesses in their community.
"It’s such a challenge for businesses because I think we all have great intentions," said Kate Fenske, chief executive officer of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, in an interview Tuesday.
"I mean, we’ve all seen the lineups outside big-box stores," said Fenske. "There’s hundreds and hundreds of people that go there — which, one could argue, is definitely not as safe as going to a local shop that inherently can have fewer people inside."
John Graham, director of government relations at the Retail Council of Canada, said he "doesn’t think it’s a matter of confidence in safety" or other precautionary measures being taken.
"The reality is, people can do multiple things at the same location with just one stop at a bigger store. And to them, that makes their life easier," he said.
That’s why national retailers like Walmart and Costco, Graham believes, have been "actively using their utility to relocate inventory to their locations in areas that are less restrictive in terms of public-health protocols."
Smith says that’s a problem she’s had to contend with, every step of the way during COVID-19.
"Right now, we should have our fall and winter items bought to be sold to customers already," she said. "We don’t have any of that because we couldn’t go to any markets for our unique items."
Smith’s boutique is now preparing for a fourth wave of the pandemic because of supply-chain concerns. At least four other retailers in the city said the same, adding big-box stores are beating them out even when it comes to clothing.
Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said it’s also a matter of competing with the giants online.
"Businesses are preparing for every contingency right now," he said. "Many of them transitioned online because they learned how important that was. But yes, not every sector can do well with e-commerce. And of course, they can’t compete with Amazon."
A couple weeks ago, Fenske held a roundtable with small retailers to discuss just that — how they’re navigating business virtually. "What we learnt was, even if they can’t necessarily compete with the giants, business owners’ efforts are still actually much more crucial and time-consuming online," she said.
"It’s moms and dads and sisters and uncles that are the ones helping and working on a business’ social media channels, round the clock and on the off hours."
Smith says she couldn’t agree more. "At the end of the day, boutiques like mine just cannot work through the SkipTheDishes model," she said.
"So, the next time you’re supporting a local restaurant, I really want everyone to also think of the local clothing shops, too. We’re really, truly struggling — so many of us have closed — and no one knows what comes ahead."