Manitoba ushers in 2nd retail shutdown, but big-box stores aren't choosing to close this time
Bigger stores that sell products considered 'essential' have option to keep their doors open
Manitoba is facing a widespread business shutdown for the second time in the pandemic — but this time, big-box stores aren't voluntarily closing their doors.
Under the latest restrictions for retailers in the province, which came into effect Thursday, all non-essential retail stores are required to close to in-person shopping.
But that doesn't apply to many big-box stores, which — because of the products they sell — fall under the "essential businesses" umbrella.
In March, when uncertainty with the first wave of the pandemic was peaking, many big retailers willingly closed up shop. Some of them were always considered essential, based on the wording of Manitoba's public health orders, but they chose to reopen to in-store customers at their own pace.
Now, these retailers are choosing to still welcome customers — and the perception is that Manitoba's second broad shutdown isn't as strict as the first.
Ikea closed to in-person shopping for around two months at the start of the pandemic, reopening in May. This time, it's staying open.
"We know that this situation is unpredictable and quickly changing, but compared to eight months ago, we have transformed our operations and are more prepared to navigate with health and safety at the forefront," the company said in a statement.
"We will continue to monitor closely and will always act in accordance with any decisions that the province takes."
Ikea said it is deemed a critical service in Manitoba because it sells office supplies and services.
Customers can still enter Hudson's Bay retail locations in Winnipeg because personal care, hygiene items and child and baby products are sold there — essential products under the public health order.
"The health and well-being of customers and associates remains our top priority as we continue to provide the essential products Canadians need, in accordance with the orders issued by the provincial government," the Bay said in a prepared statement.
'Uneven playing field' for small business: CFIB
Small business owners, however, have said they're at an unfair disadvantage when their big-box competition can keep selling in-store — offering non-essential products they carry along with those considered essential.
"So many small businesses I've talked to in the last three or four days, they would love to stay open," said Jonathan Alward, Prairie director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"They would love to be able to keep their staff employed, to try and salvage the rest of their year by having a somewhat strong holiday season," he said.
"I hope that not just large retailers recognize this uneven playing field, but I hope that all Manitobans are consciously thinking about how can they support small businesses right now."
Alward said Manitoba should consider preventing the sale of non-essential items in large stores, which some jurisdictions in the United States and U.K. have done.
Keri Kettle, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Manitoba, said businesses have personal protective equipment and protocols in place to ensure safety. They didn't have those precautions in the spring, when staff and customers were more nervous, he said.
As such, businesses — big or small — aren't keen to close again, Kettle said, and many consumers don't want them to.
"Perceptions of the risk have changed, and so people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can protect themselves better now than they believed they could in March and April."
That's not only emboldened retailers, says Kettle. In addition, "retailers feel like they can operate with minimal risk of their staff getting sick."
If Monica Smith could, she'd welcome customers into her Transcona toy store, Aunt Monica's Attic. But considered a non-essential business, she's relegated to curbside pickup and delivery by mail.
"With retail sales, this is how you pay your bills for the whole year, is in November and December," she said.
Smith said she doesn't blame the large retailers for staying open. After all, she said, they're keeping local people employed — and if she had the option, she'd do the same.
"Big-box stores, if they're not being told to shut down, they're not going to do it. Same with my store."
With files from Marina von Stackelberg