Why this Hamilton shop owner says she's not yet ready to reopen her doors

When the Ontario government gave some businesses the go-ahead to reopen on Tuesday as it slowly loosened COVID-19 restrictions, Hamilton retail store owner Whitney McMeekin did not take up the offer.

Girl on the Wing owner Whitney McMeekin doesn’t feel comfortable having people in her shop just yet

Whitney McMeekin is the owner of Girl on the Wing, a boutique that sells vintage clothing and retro housewares. (CBC)

When the Ontario government gave some businesses the go-ahead to reopen on Tuesday as it slowly loosened COVID-19 restrictions, Hamilton retail store owner Whitney McMeekin did not take up the offer.

Included on the government's list are retail services that are not in shopping malls and have separate street-front entrances with measures in place that can enable physical distancing — such as limiting the number of customers in the store at any one time and booking appointments beforehand or on the spot.

While McMeekin's shop somewhat fits the bill, she did not feel comfortable about bringing customers back in. Her focus right now is on getting things in place that would allow her to safely operate in the era of COVID-19.

"I'm not ready. We decided not to reopen until we feel ready," McMeekin told CBC news. 

"I know the government did set out certain guidelines and there's a lot of stuff about, you know, the obvious spacing people out, wearing protective equipment, but I feel that when it comes to clothing retail, there [are] so many things to be figured out.

Whitney McMeekin, owner of Girl on the Wing, is not opening her Hamilton clothing shop today, the first day Ontario retail stores with street access are allowed to, and has moved most of her business online.  6:16

She said these include things "like trying clothes on [and] people wanting to browse. I just feel like the customer experience won't be there until we can figure out some solutions," McMeekin added. 

McMeekin has been operating her store in Hamilton's International Village for about seven years.

She told CBC News on Thursday that being immunocompromised, she knew from the moment COVID-19 cases started showing up that she had no choice but to close the store. 

Moved to online store in mid-March

McMeekin closed her storefront in mid-March and began focusing on adding to her online store, which she said was not her main focus prior to COVID-19.

"I had 20 products up there but now I'm up to the point where I have like 300," she said.

"We were doing free local delivery … contact-less delivery to people's porches. They would order online and we would deliver to them, which we feel was the safest option for everyone."

Being able to sell online is what McMeekin said got her through the past few months.

"I've always been worried about just paying my rent, covering my expenses and having my online store has helped me with that."

Curbside pickups

McMeekin said last week she introduced curbside pickups, giving customers the opportunity to order online and pickup items outside the shop.

"That's been nice, to give people another option and we're still doing the local deliveries as well," McMeekin explained.

"Throughout this I've also had people from other provinces and other cities order things to be shipped. So, it's been good and it's been really nice to be able to continue to interact with the customers and just still be working through such a difficult time."

Some of the Girl on the Wing local delivery orders the store has been doing during the COVID19. (Submitted by Whitney McMeekin)

Not judging those who decide to reopen

McMeekin is making it clear that she is not against anyone who feels they are ready to reopen.

"I don't judge anyone who is open. I know a few business owners who have figured out good systems, but for me the amount of time and energy that I've just put into figuring out these new systems, this new way of operating my business, I haven't had much time to put into working on making the store more conducive to safer shopping," McMeekin said.

"Also, the money to invest in the kind of system that I would want; I've been working hard just to cover my basic expenses through this, so I just don't have the reserve of money set aside for this kind of thing — that all got eaten up through COVID."

Whitney McMeekin says she's been operating her store in Hamilton’s International Village for about seven years. (Submitted by Whitney McMeekin)

McMeekin wants to make sure she can come up with a system that's suitable before bringing customers back into the store. She knows it's doable but says it requires some more time on her end.

"I want to feel confident and that I've fully researched everything that I could. I don't feel comfortable having people in the space when there haven't been sufficient guidelines set out for clothing specifically — like people trying things on," she said.

"Viruses can live on clothing, so figuring out a system if someone tries something on what happens next with the clothing if they don't want to buy? Does it go into quarantine for however many hours? People want to touch things when they're looking at clothing. Shopping for clothes is such a physical thing."

McMeekin said she's received "so much support and love throughout the pandemic" with her pivot into focusing on online sales and safe delivery to people. 

She also found that a lot of people are responding well to these new ways of business and communication, so she's in no rush to open up her shop.

A lot of focus on small-business owners

McMeekin noted there's been a lot of focus on small-business owners during this time, and she believes this is because they have become markers of the general public. 

"Our choice to reopen or not reflects so many people's feelings during this time and is unique because we've rarely had to justify our reasoning for how we operate to people," she said.

"In the past, we were able to make those decisions based on our own circumstances. I think that this is an important thing for everyone to remember right now. All of our feelings about the pandemic are varying and there shouldn't be any single expectation of what a business owner should or shouldn't do.

"By allowing people to make the decision that feels right to them, and not putting any sort of pressure on small-business owners, people can make their own informed decisions. It's important to me to provide services and products for my customers and I will continue operating through my online channels and deliveries/pickups until I can implement safe and thoughtful systems for the in-store experience," McMeeken added.


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