New Brunswick

Kneading, weeding and weed help N.B. retailers fight April sales decline

Groceries, gardening supplies and recreational drugs helped New Brunswick counteract a steep sales decline during the early days of COVID-19, according to figures from Statistics Canada.

Retail sales were down nearly $280M over last April, but province fared better than some other jurisdictions

Duncan Kelbaugh of Brunswick Nurseries said sales were up immediately when he opened his doors April 15 and have not slowed since. (Brunswick Nurseries/Facebook)

Early success in fending off the COVID-19 virus and some quick adjusting by local entrepreneurs helped New Brunswick dodge some of the economic pain other provinces suffered in their retail sectors during the first full month of state-of-emergency store closures.

On Friday, Statistics Canada reported retail sales in New Brunswick in April totalled $807.2 million. It was a hefty $279.6 million drop from last April but noticeably better than some neighbouring jurisdictions, as local businesses did what they could to keep customers supplied.

In Nova Scotia April sales dropped $422.6 million year over year and nationally transactions fell 32.8 per cent, a full seven points worse than New Brunswick.

"The largest declines occurred in Ontario and Quebec, the provinces reporting the most COVID-19 cases in April," reported Statistics Canada in a release.

In New Brunswick it appeared cooking, gardening and a little recreational drug use helped residents and the economy through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a shift in spending habits revealed by the new sales data.

Garden centres across New Brunswick recorded sales increases in April, one of a select few businesses that have benefited from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Marianne Beckwith)

Transactions at grocery stores and garden supply centres in the province were up substantially and Cannabis NB reported its best results since opening back in 2018.

On April 16, Premier Blaine Higgs announced a decision to let garden centres in the province open, in part because of success containing the virus, and the move paid off immediately, according to Brunswick Nurseries owner Duncan Kelbaugh of Quispamsis.

"We normally open around April 15. Right off the bat our sales were up," said Kelbaugh, who found people flooding his business looking for seeds, tools and advice.

Most retail outlets in New Brunswick were forced to stay closed in April, causing a large decline in sales across the economy, with some notable exceptions. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"There's a huge interest in growing vegetables at home. There are all kinds of beginner vegetable gardeners that are starting just a kitchen-sized little plot.

"People have more time. They are home and can't travel and so want to improve their home. April [business] was better than the April before and May was more than double the May of 2019."

Sales figures show New Brunswick residents spent $69.2 million at home improvement and gardening supply centres in April, a 29 per cent increase from a year earlier.

There were no giant lineups at Cannabis NB like on its opening day back in 2018, but the agency had its best month ever in April with sales of $5.5 million. (Hadeel Ibrahim / CBC)

And when people weren't digging up the lawn or repairing something at their homes, it appears they were in the kitchen cooking and baking.

Sales at grocery stores were $182.7 million in April, 22.4 per cent more than last year and almost matching record sales in March that were inflated by early panic buying and hoarding.

Looking to relax, consumers also spent $5.5 million in April at Cannabis NB. That's a record monthly amount for the government-owned retailer and a stunning 92 per cent more than it sold last April.

Even businesses that were partially shut down managed to keep some sales going through home deliveries, curb side pick up and other creative workarounds.

Sales at New Brunswick grocery stores like Sobeys were up more than 22 per cent in April over last April as people stayed home and cooked and baked more for themselves. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

John Gerber with Maritime Carpet One in Fredericton told CBC News in April he was doing what he could to keep customers supplied with paint for home renovation projects, despite his store being mostly closed.

"They go online, they pick out their colours, I go and mix up the paint, you pay on your credit card," said Gerber. "If you can pick it up, great, I'll put it outside the front door for you when you arrive. If not, we'll deliver it to the front door of your house."

At the time, Higgs said he was impressed by how local businesses were overcoming obstacles to stay in operation, something that helped keep provincial sales declines from deepening further.

"I'm inspired by the creativity and co-operation of our business community," said Higgs on April 17. "I've been very encouraged to how quickly businesses have adapted to the situation."

But overall it was still a brutal month for many businesses.

Sales at New Brunswick clothing stores fell to near zero and dropped 61.3 per cent at furniture outlets.

Sales of new and used vehicles and car parts were also down substantially, falling 55.8 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

About the Author

Robert Jones


Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.


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