Small businesses in Sask. struggling, closing due to pandemic pressure

Statistics Canada found that in April 2020, 88,187 business closures were recorded — more than twice than what was observed in April 2019. Openings fell by roughly 25 per cent in the same period.

Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates 6,200 small businesses at risk in province

Busy Bee Cleaners in Regina has seen business slow substanially, but owner Larry Tessier says he's doing everything he can to keep supporting employees and customers while keeping the doors open for business (Facebook/Screengrab)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some Saskatchewan businesses to close their doors for good, while others are struggling to stay open with reduced staffing — and less business.

"We're holding up ok, but it's definitely been a struggle," said Larry Tessier, owner of Regina's Busy Bee Cleaners, who said business has fallen by about 70 per cent.

Tessier said with so many people working from home, there are fewer occasions for people to get dressed up.

Roughly half of the staff at Busy Bee had to be laid off due to the pandemic, Tessier said, but he's doing his best to support his employees and ensuring they still get paid full-time wages despite the slow-down in business.

"The staff that we kept, we gave them a long list of chores that needed doing ... a lot of extra cleaning, some painting and equipment maintenance," he said.

While the business reduced its hours of operation during the pandemic, as things started to pick up, they were able to go back to pre-COVID-19 hours.

Not enough work for all the staff

For Tessier, he said the hardest part of the pandemic has been facing staffing changes due to the downturn.

He had to lay off four staff, and says a couple others haven't returned as there isn't enough business to bring them back. Of the five full-time staff currently working at Busy Bee, only two of them are getting 40 hours a week. 

Tessier said the federal government's wage subsidy program and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) have been helpful in ensuring employees are still being taken care of despite changes at the shop. 

"Those two programs have really, really kept the wolves away from the door in terms of my employees," he said. 

However, Tessier said he has been hearing a lot of "doom and gloom" from other members of the business community, as many are concerned about their future once the emergency benefits end. 

Closures double compared to April 2019

Statistics Canada indicates the COVID-19 pandemic has "led to a significant increase in business closures and a decrease in business openings." 

They found that in April 2020, 88,187 business closures were recorded — more than twice than what was observed in April 2019. Openings fell by roughly 25 per cent in the same period. 

The trend is reflected in Saskatchewan, as the number of closing businesses jumped to 2,185 in April 2020 from 1,099 in December of 2019. That's an increase in closures of roughly 98 per cent recorded in just five months. 

Statistics Canada also found the number of active businesses operating in Saskatchewan fell sharply in the same timeframe. In April of 2020, roughly 19,936 active businesses were recorded, for a decrease of 11 per cent — or  2,200  — when compared to December 2019.

Some long-time establishments in Saskatoon are closing their doors as a result of the pandemic. The German Cultural Centre in the city will be closing permanently on August 30, with the "path that 2020 has taken" being cited in a Facebook post as one of the reasons for the closure. The Little Bird Pâtisserie & Café also cited the events of the year in a Facebook post detailing its decision to close down. 

In Regina, The Capitol announced back in March with a "heavy heart" it'll be closing its doors.

Marilyn Braun-Pollon, a representative of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses in Saskatchewan, says the pandemic has been hard for entrepreneurs of all kinds. 

"We talk to business owners every week and these have just been a really difficult five months," she said. "Navigating this pandemic has been stressful and the level of uncertainty is just off the charts." 

Marilyn Braun-Pollon is a representative of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses in Saskatchewan. She says it's more important now than ever to support local and small businesses, as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous sleepness nights for small business owners. (Canadian Federation of Independent Business)

Braun-Pollon noted while roughly 76 per cent of businesses fully open, 43 per cent are fully staffed, but only 27 per cent are making normal sales. 

While people may think businesses are back to normal when they drive or walk by them on a regular basis, the truth is "behind the counter, the story, they're very different" as the number of small businesses at risk is staggering. 

"Nationally, about 158,000 small businesses could be at risk of closing. In Saskatchewan, that could be close to 6,200 at risk of closing," she said. 

End of an era

A wall of bags can be seen inside the Awl Shoppe in Saskatoon. The store, which has been operating in Saskatoon for more than 40 years, will be closing its doors to the public on August 28, 2020. (Facebook/Screengrab)

The Awl Shoppe has been operating in Saskatoon for roughly 40 years and has become a staple in the city, repairing thousands of shoes and pieces of luggage for residents.

But its owner, Alyssa Byrns, says the shop has been unable to withstand the pandemic's storm, and she's set to close the store, which opened in 1977. For her, the closure of the shop is heartbreaking, as it was the place where her parents met and started her family.

"It's going to be strange to not have the store here," she said. . Her father and uncle opened the shop after being trained in shoe repair by her Seattle-based grandparents. 

The Awl Shoppe had expanded to a total of five stores — three in Saskatoon and two in Regina — but only the Saskatoon store remains. "It really built a name for itself over the years," said Byrns.

For Byrns, the realization the business would likely have to close came relatively early, as they didn't know if they were going to be able to reopen following the shutdown, but they wanted to try. They reopened on June 1, but business wasn't exactly booming. 

"We had a little rush of a repair at the beginning, but no retail," she said. "Most of our retail sales were in travel, so that was just basically at a standstill. So June was shaky and then July, unfortunately, it was even worse, so we had to make the tough decision to shut our doors." 

Byrns sais the shop took full advantage of government programs, applying and being approved for everything they could, which help with paying staff and bills, "but that doesn't bring customers in the door unfortunately," she said. 

She says Saskatoon will be losing a unique set of services. Since news of the closure started to spread, messages of sadness have been pouring in. 

"The amount of support that has come out, and people in tears in the store," she said.

"It's difficult. You can just see it in people's eyes." 

The Awl Shoppe was opened by Alyssa Byrns' father and uncle in 1977 and served Saskatchewan for more than 40 years. At its peak, the Awl Shoppe had a total of five locations across the province. (Facebook/Screengrab)

Braun-Pollon said the Awl Shoppe's closure is heartbreaking, but it's possible more stories of this type could be heard in the coming months, as member surveys are detailing to the organization how they're feeling the stress.

"This summer has been a hard one for small businesses," she said. 

She explained with so many small businesses at risk, it's now more important than ever to buy and support small businesses.

She said this is one of the main reasons the CFIB launched its "small business everyday campaign" which encourages members of the public to shop local and then post about the small businesses they support online, with more than 65,000 Canadians participating so far. 

"These are challenging times," she said. "And it's all about supporting our favourite business today so they'll have a tomorrow and no purchase is too small."


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