'Enough is enough': Calgary businesses struggle, some close for good
Closure of decades-old retail art gallery linked to pandemic, more expected to follow
It's been her life for decades, and like so many retailers, 2020 has been an epic struggle.
Susan Copley tears up before she explains why she's decided to close her business for good. She wipes away the tears and apologizes for getting emotional.
Copley, who started as an employee at Galleria Inglewood 39 years ago, says the decision to close was difficult, but at the same time it was easy.
"It just comes to the point where you have to say 'enough is enough,'" said Copley.
Copley started working at the gallery in 1982 when it was still located in Kensington. She and her husband purchased the business in 2005 and relocated to Inglewood. Galleria Inglewood is essentially a consignment store for artists selling pottery, paintings, wood carvings, quilts, jewlery and thousands of other items.
In September, Copley will close the doors for good.
Business started to slow five years ago and it hasn't recovered. She thought COVID-19 would be the ultimate blow, but part of the showroom was flooded after a devastating storm rolled through Calgary on June 13.
"I felt that COVID was the final straw and then Mother Nature said 'no, I got one more for you.'"
Retailers across the province have been hit hard this year. Sales have plunged by a staggering $2 billion since March —that's roughly 30 per cent. While sales at some businesses are slowly picking up as the economy reopens, it's going to be a long road filled with uncertainty.
Will customers return? How long will the recovery take? If e-commerce is the future, can businesses pivot quickly enough to survive? What programs or policies will help? Will empty storefronts find new tenants?
The Business Council of Alberta says there is too much uncertainty to answer those questions.
"I think that it's inevitable that we'll see some pretty significant losses over the next few months," said Mike Holden, the council's chief economist and vice-president of policy.
He recently returned to his downtown office and saw the pandemic's collateral damage on full display nearby.
"A lot of the smaller shops and stores and storefronts are all shut down and closed. It's not a pretty sight. It's depressing to walk around," he said.
"The real issue here, too, is that we don't know what the final impact of all of this is going to be."
It's the same situation along Calgary's 17th Avenue S.W. The retail and restaurant strip has numerous storefronts that have been emptied out and the windows papered over. It's a mix of local and national chain stores that have closed.
The Retail Council of Canada predicts at least 15 per cent of bricks-and-mortar stores will not survive the pandemic, but the number in Alberta could actually be higher.
"Alberta retailers and restaurants face a much greater challenge," said Diane Brisebois, the council's president and chief executive officer.
She says retailers in Alberta were already hurting because of the recession and declining oil prices.
Brisebois says it's going to be very difficult for retailers with either a weak or non-existent e-commerce presence to survive.
"Unless, obviously, things change very quickly for the better," she said.
She says businesses must quickly develop a seamless shopping experience, through either in-store, online or both.
"That means that you have to have a very robust website with good assortment that's user friendly, and you need to have a new exciting store. Stores will now be very experiential."
The Retail Council of Canada is also calling on the federal government to improve its rent relief program for small businesses affected by the pandemic.
She says the current program (Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance) doesn't work because it relies on landlords to apply for a program that sees their rent slashed by 25 per cent. She says it needs to be changed so retailers can benefit.
"If that does not happen very quickly, we believe that the number of bankruptcies will increase substantially over the next three to six months."
The Business Council of Alberta says it's a factor that's hurting retailers.
"I think that it's for that reason that we're not seeing as many landlords take up this program as you might expect," said Holden.
Susan Copley knows that all too well. She doesn't believe her landlord has applied for the program that could have reduced her rent by 75 per cent.
"So rent is still due. But if you've been closed for three months, I don't know where they expect the money to come from," she said.
It's not certain whether the rent relief program could have staved off her decision to close, but it didn't help.
She's going to turn 70 this year and she says she no longer has the passion or drive to continue — even as an online only retailer.
"People like to pick up a mug, they like to feel a quilt, they like to see things and, you know, stand back and look at them and handle them. And you can't do that on Amazon."
The store features work from 750 artists from across Canada, and Copley says it's going to be difficult to see those business relationships come to an end.
"I have a personal relationship with every single person that supplies this store. I know them all by name. I've known them for years. And I'm going to miss them," Copley said while holding back tears.
One of those artists is Marilyn Settles, who's been a potter in Calgary for 45 years. Her work is sold at two locations in Calgary, including Galleria Inglewood. She's devastated the store will soon close and she'll lose one of her sales venues.
"It's crushing, it's gut-wrenching," she said.
"The store has allowed me to have my own home, raise two children and educate them well, and I don't know what I would have done without it," said Settles.
Copley says she has started to mark down some of the pieces in her vast collection and will stay open for a few more months before she closes the store for good in September.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.