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Manitoba businesses hoping to salvage holiday sales kicked to the curbside until new year

Manitoba’s small businesses were hoping to salvage what’s left of the holiday season, but those hopes have now been dashed for many.

The province announced Tuesday that pandemic restrictions prohibiting the sale of non-essential items in store will remain in place until Jan. 8. Those goods can only be purchased for delivery or pickup.

“I was hoping that we’d have some sort of Christmas season or holiday season, that we would be open for at least a small part of December,” said Kelsey Steuart, who owns the boutique clothing shop Margot + Maude on Winnipeg’s Academy Road.

With the exception of thrift stores, brick-and-mortar retail shops that sell only items deemed non-essential will have to remain closed through the holiday season.

“Usually your holiday sales [in] November-December kind of hold you through January-February, which are really slow months,” said Steuart.

She was hoping the province would allow stores like hers to open with strict capacity limits in place, or with appointment-based shopping.

“It was really disappointing — like really, potentially devastating for independent retail as a whole,” she said.

Steuart says while she’s been able to move between five to 10 online orders per day at her shop, business overall is down by about 60 to 70 per cent. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it was hoping Manitoba would follow Alberta’s lead and allow small retailers to open at 15 per cent capacity, or by appointment.

“For a lot of Manitobans, the news yesterday was probably a gut punch, but for many small businesses that I’ve talked to over the last few weeks this is going to be close to a death blow probably for some if not many,” said Jonathan Alward, the Prairie region director for the CFIB.

“As Jan. 8 approaches, especially if case numbers aren’t dropping, I think a lot of business who are already considering bankruptcy are going to make that really unfortunate decision.”

Alward said the latest restrictions, which have been in place for close to a month, have already had an extreme impact on small businesses that were still struggling after the first lockdown in the spring.

While aid like the province’s $5,000 bridge grant helps, “it doesn’t go anywhere near enough to make a lot of these businesses whole,” he said.

“Prolonging this is going to have a huge impact on their debt load, their ability to pay for other things in the future, probably even their ability to reopen.”

Alward said while businesses understand the need for measures to curb COVID-19 case numbers, many feel small retailers could more easily control customer numbers in their shops, compared to big box stores.

Forcing businesses to move their sales online isn’t always feasible or profitable, said Alward.

“It’s extremely labour intensive and ultimately, when you are forcing small businesses to close their brick-and-mortar shops and forcing them to go online, they’re competing directly with your Amazons.”

Steuart says while she does have an online store, her business caters to the in-store experience. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Steuart has been able to maintain some business through online sales, but overall, her business is down 60 to 70 per cent.

“We have an online store but it isn’t the calibre of what an online business would be for a bigger company, or a company that is only online,” she said.

“Part of the reason people shop here, I believe, is because of the customer experience, because they get to see everything, they get to touch the clothing, they get to work with the staff.”

She’s taking advantage of supports for small businesses like the bridge grant, but worries about what could happen if the shutdown lasts even longer than Jan. 8.

“I’m hoping we can hold on through then, but it’s going to be tough,” she said.

More planning needed once vaccine rolls out

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce was also hoping for some ease on restrictions for small businesses.

“When you look at 2020, many of these businesses have been closed almost half a year, ” said Loren Remillard, the chamber’s president and CEO.

“If I had to continue to pay all my bills but only had half my income, how would you manage?… And that’s what a lot of businesses are facing.”

He worries not only about the economic health of small businesses, but the mental health of the people who own them.

Some business owners are seeing their life’s work destroyed, and have had to layoff longtime employees who are like family to them, Remillard said.

“The stress level … I’ve never seen it this high.”

Remillard wants to see more planning in place for how businesses will begin to reopen once vaccines begin to roll out.

“As we vaccinate, there needs to be a corresponding economic relief in terms of reopening and confidence building in the business community.”

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