Businesses banking on 2020 grad season take big hit due to pandemic cancellations

Edmonton businesses that bank on annual high school graduation events have taken losses, but hope loosened restrictions on gatherings lead to sales.

Owners hoping loosened restrictions lead to small grad events, boost in sales

Sterling Derk assists Dylan LaPierre, a high school graduate, with rental tuxedo at Derks Formals and Mesnwear. Both are wearing masks, following public health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

High school grad season is a time for celebration, but many Edmonton businesses that bank on the occasion are taking big losses.

Now, with loosened restrictions on public gatherings, they're hoping cancellations turn into postponements.

Inside Derks Formals and Menswear in Jasper Place, Dylan LaPierre tries on a rental tux. It all looks pretty normal, except for the light blue mask covering his face.

LaPierre, 17, was supposed to attend his graduation ceremony Friday in Spruce Grove. Instead, he's having a small, distanced get-together with friends and family. He still wanted to mark the occasion with a nice outfit.

"It sucks that we had to have that moment taken away from us," LaPierre said. "I'm still able to rent a suit, still feel like it's normal, still make it special and be able to wear that suit. To be done and put school behind [my]self."

Sterling Derk, co-owner of Derks Formals, is happy to see customers like LaPierre coming in and spending money during the grad season.

The store would usually be swamped in June with groups of 10 to 15 high school students picking up their suits and tuxedos, but public health measures led to many graduation ceremonies being cancelled.

Graduation-related sales and rentals are down at least 50 per cent, Derk said. But he has seen an uptick lately, with few grads and their parents coming in to buy.

"So we're having people coming in maybe looking to purchase instead of rent, because they're going to get something that the kids can wear when they do an event later added an unknown date," he said.

To help with losses, the company started designing and selling non-medical masks.

"It's not at the level of what we're used to, but we've been able to make adjustments to the business plan so that we can stay afloat for a three-month period and then get back to normal at some point in time," Derk said.

Across the city, things are quiet inside Prom Affair, where owner Vahida Samji speaks on the phone to customers while a staff member organizes dresses.

Typically, business picks up in March as graduating students from outside of the city take advantage of spring break to try on prom dresses.

This year, spring break happened right around the time that the Alberta government shut down businesses due to the pandemic.

"I thought 'Oh my God, you know, is this it?' Will I have to shut down the store because I have suppliers calling me every day asking for payments?' And the girls keep calling and saying 'No, I don't want my dress. Can I have my refund back? Can I have my deposit back?'" Samji said.

Vahida Samji, owner of Prom Affair, hopes high school graduation events will be postponed, rather than cancelled outright, now that gathering restrictions are being lifted in Alberta. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Many of the dresses remaining in the store from this season will have to be sold on clearance, she said.

Samji has received assistance through the federal government's COVID-19 relief measures for small businesses, but she's worried about the long-term outlook. 

"It's getting scary, because the three months are almost over and the help that came from the government is going to end soon and there is no business," Samji said. "I haven't hardly had anybody coming in." 

'Something special'

Protocol Limousines is typically busy at this time of year, with its stretch limos filled with graduates on Cloud 9. Right now, its smaller vehicles are a better fit for small groups or families.

Sylvain Vezina, the company's vice-president, hopes to see an uptick in graduation-related bookings for the company's five stretch limousines over the next month, now that the province has entered Stage 2 of the economic relaunch and has increased limits on the size of gatherings.

"If they cannot have the big grad with the hundreds of people that usually attend, at least their closest friends should be able to have something special. It might turn out to be something that could be really good for the business."


Travis McEwan

Video journalist

Travis McEwan is a video journalist who covers stories ranging from human interest and sports to municipal and provincial issues. Originally from Churchill, Man., Travis has spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton reporting for web, radio and television. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca.


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