It’s been a rough few weeks for Tyler Kilkenny of Russell.
Kilkenny, who owns coffee shop and gift store TinHouse Designs and Coffee Co. with his partner, Todd Sawyer, would normally expect to make enough this time of year to cover a good chunk of their first quarter in 2021. Like most retailers, November and December are peak shopping season. But again, like most retailers, this year has been anything but normal.
Kilkenny and Sawyer are among the many small-town business owners forced to cut off some or all of their in-person shopping, after the province tightened restrictions following Manitoba’s alarming spike in COVID-19 cases.
Why it matters: Small-town business owners say that it should be possible to keep people safe from COVID-19, without pushing their financial future to the breaking point.
It has been a month since the province cracked down on physical shopping. As of Nov. 12, the provincial government moved all of Manitoba to Code Red, the highest alarm level under its pandemic response system. The restrictions required all non-essential businesses to close, save for e-commerce, curbside pickup and delivery. Joint businesses such as TinHouse Designs and Coffee Co., however, were initially allowed to stay open to all sales, as long as part of their business was essential — in Kilkenny’s case, the restaurant.
On Nov. 20 that also changed. The province further cracked down on retail, following reports of crowded box stores — allowed to stay open based on the sale of groceries and other essentials — and weekend shopping crowds.
The loophole had also drawn scorn from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. CEO Dan Kelly argued that allowing those big-box stores to remain open while small businesses selling the same non-essentials were forced to close created an unequal playing field.
On Nov. 20, the province extended the restrictions to cover the sale of all non-essential items.
That also meant, however, that businesses such as Kilkenny’s got caught in the crossfire.
Kilkenny estimates about half of their product is “essential.” Their storefront can still hold 10 people at a time under current restrictions, just so long as those people are in for food and not browsing the giftware.
“Unfortunately, there’s not that many people coming in because they’re thinking that everybody’s closed,” he said.
The business has done its best to pivot, introducing evening meals three times a week and launching Facebook live shopping events. But for Kilkenny, the larger problem is a provincial policy that he says is being driven by urban numbers, rather than the reality of the small town.
“There’s no one that will ever tell me that our shop, that sees maybe 20 people a day, isn’t safer and cleaner than a Walmart that sees hundreds of people a day,” he said. “By shutting down all of these little businesses, you’re forcing people to go either online to shop or somewhere else, so they’re going to the cities and making it busier.”
While Manitoba shut down non-essential sales as of Nov. 20, Russell sits within easy drive of Yorkton, and Saskatchewan’s less stringent rules. In late November, reports emerged of Manitobans travelling to cities like Regina and Yorkton to buy non-essentials currently banned by their own public health orders, something that has since been discouraged by Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer.
It is also not the region’s first brush with a COVID-19 spike, Kilkenny added. In that case, he argues, numbers were brought back under control, but did not require a total shutdown of in-person business.
In late August, the Prairie Mountain Health Region moved to Code Orange, the second-highest level in the Manitoba Pandemic Response System. At that time, the Asessippi health district, including Russell, was posting the third-highest COVID-19 case counts in the province.
By Sept. 18, however, cases in western Manitoba were back down and restrictions had eased.
“None of the rest of the province went to Code Orange, just our area, and that’s what I thought all of the areas were meant to do,” Kilkenny said. “So when we went to that, we went to Code Orange, everybody was still able to run their business. We were diligent in lowering the curve, flattening the curve, and we did it without destructing business. Right now, we’ve literally annihilated business in small towns.
“Trust me, we all want to be safe and we would hate to overwhelm our health (system) in our area, especially our hospitals and things like that, but there has to be some sort of balance. It can’t just be a shut off the tap and that’s it,” he later added.
Down the street from Kilkenny and Sawyer, Jessica Jamieson of Prairie Collective Co. is in much the same boat. Unlike their business, however, Jamieson’s decor, furniture and antiques shop was forced to close as of the province’s initial move into Code Red, despite doubling as a courier depot.
That courier depot is still operating, Jamieson said, but with a table blockade allowing customers into only the store opening, not the main floor space.
“Honestly, we feel so frustrated,” she said. “It’s like the government doesn’t understand how few people we have wandering through the store. On any given day, we might have 20 people, 30 people max, walk through, but they’re not all coming at the same time. Very few times do we have more than one party of people come at once.
“It was just frustrating that we couldn’t have the permission to do our due diligence and still let people browse, because we can definitely maintain the traffic flow, even just by appointment shopping,” she said.
Jamieson estimates that her proceeds in November and December typically cover bills for the first four months of the next year.
Her courier depot, meanwhile, makes her relatively little money, but requires her to be on hand for customers to pick up their parcels.
Kelly has also argued that tight restrictions on box stores, while allowing a critical few shoppers into small businesses, might be a better approach for both safety and economic health.
“Saskatchewan has allowed smaller retailers to remain open, but put capacity restrictions on big-box stores,” he said over Twitter. “This seems like a much better approach to combating COVID-19 if the goal is to ensure greater physical distancing and less time in large groups.”
In late November, Saskatchewan introduced restrictions that cap capacity for large businesses at 50 per cent. No additional capacity restrictions were added for small businesses.
On Dec. 3, Manitoba announced $1.5 million for local chambers of commerce to help combat the shutdown’s economic hit. The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce says that money will go to shop local campaigns and other local initiatives from their members.
“We know this funding will help meet the evolving needs of businesses, and accelerate and amplify the efforts made by the business community so we can truly make a difference in helping Manitoba retailers generate revenue during this year’s holiday shopping season,” Manitoba Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler said.
In November, the province also announced its Bridge Grant program, which doles out $5,000 for businesses shut down by COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m a former small-business owner and I want to say to our small-business owners that you are the backbone of our economy,” Premier Brian Pallister said at the time, “and I know that you put it on the line and I know that many of you have had to close your doors; you’ve had to lay off staff which you love; you’ve had to adapt your operations.”
Kilkenny, however, says that $5,000 is “nothing” compared to his business expenses.
While some of her business has moved successfully online, e-commerce has failed to match Jamieson’s typical sales.
Access to and comfort with online shopping is an obstacle for some of her customers, she noted, while she cannot match the online presence of big chains such as Amazon or Walmart. People do not necessarily know to look for her tiny online store, she said, and so default to those big names. At the same time, her online store does not have the capacity to highlight every product she sells.
She sees the result of that trend first hand, through her courier depot.
Amazon courier traffic has “got absolutely insane since March,” she said.
Social media, while a valuable tool for business owners, also takes more time and effort, Kilkenny also said. Such business takes about three times longer as he fields product questions for customers who cannot actually touch or see the product prior to purchase.
It’s a challenge that Denise Cousins, who operates decor company One Acre Wood out of Kemnay, is very familiar with.
Almost all of her business is over Facebook, she said, on top of a handful of Manitoba stores that handle her product, as well as a booth at regular craft shows.
“I think there’s just a way that small businesses like us have to promote more online, have to be in touch with customers, basically all day,” she said. “It’s just the way it’s going.”
The loss of craft shows this year has been a hit to some crafters, including herself up until this fall, she admitted. Cousins says her sales were down 30 per cent up until recently, when the cancellation of yet another local craft show in early November unexpectedly turned into a wave of online support when that show moved online.
“We’ve had the busiest sale we’ve had for a few years, because everyone has jumped on board into buying local,” she said.
Candace Olafson, executive director of the Morden and District Chamber of Commerce, says e-commerce is still a challenge for stores without a robust online presence, although several of their members have invested in that sort of infrastructure since spring.
Other businesses — businesses “you would never consider a delivery-type business before,” according to Olafson — have proved willing to make accommodations for potential customers.
“While some of them might not exactly have an online store, just by simply calling them or reaching out to them, maybe it’s through social media challenges, they’re doing all sorts of different things,” she said.
The “shop local” motto has become a rallying cry in recent weeks.
Pam Miller, president of the Neepawa Chamber of Commerce, says many local businesses have banded together to help weather the lockdown.
In one case, she said, a local essential business able to stay open has started a weekly gift card giveaway, promoting a rotating list of other local businesses that might not be so lucky. That original $250 pot has since expanded as other locals have pitched in, she said.
Others have started a local business bingo over social media, or are highlighting products from local crafters in their windows.
“It’s kind of heartwarming to see how supportive they are of one another,” she said.
The chamber has also kept up a flow of shared social media posts from members.
In other communities, locals have put together a directory of local businesses, in an effort to let locals know what is available and where.
Farther south, the City of Morden has also moved its annual shop local campaign online. The chamber’s Wrapping Up a Morden Christmas, normally an evening of extended shopping hours, prizes and local sales, will be going ahead in a modified form this year, Olafson said. The event is now a five-week social media and prize campaign, launched Nov. 16.
“We’re really hoping as people shop, post, share, use the hashtag, there’s a great trickle effect that will happen and we’ll see more and more people supporting our local businesses,” she said.
Local support has taken some sting out of lost holiday sales, both Kilkenny and Jamieson said. While Russell lost its own in-person shop local campaign — normally a string of Thursdays in December featuring late store hours and activities like sleigh rides — Jamieson says they have been, “run off our feet with private messages and texts and calls.”
“It was a dire situation and the locals have literally made it feasible for us to continue to pay the bills,” she said.
Both Russell business owners are involved with their own chamber of commerce, which has also been pushing locals to shop close to home.
“We’re all pushing to remind people that these businesses are the same ones that sponsor your baseball teams and hire your kids and things like that to remind them of all the things these businesses do all year long and this is the time that they need your help,” Kilkenny said.