Toronto

Shop local and shop small, business owners urge Toronto residents ahead of Christmas

For vintage store owner Shauntelle LeBlanc, Christmas is the busiest time of year. Her store on the Danforth, Ethel 20th Century Living, sells everything from ornaments to jewelry, furniture to light fixtures, vases to candlesticks, and now is when customers want to shop.

Time before Christmas is critical for small business owners, retail groups say

The storefront of Ethel 20th Century Living, a vintage store on the Danforth, is pictured here. (Shauntelle LeBlanc)

For vintage store owner Shauntelle LeBlanc, Christmas is the busiest time of year. Her store on the Danforth, Ethel 20th Century Living, sells everything from ornaments to jewelry, furniture to light fixtures, vases to candlesticks, and now is when customers want to shop.

With Toronto in the province's grey lockdown zone, shopping is not allowed inside her store. LeBlanc says she has had to rely on curbside pickup, online shoppers and the e-commerce platform Shopify to keep her small business going.

"Shopping local is happening for us, definitely. This neighbourhood, Danforth and Woodbine, is really supportive of their small businesses," LeBlanc said. "The bigger challenge for us is to get people who don't shop local to start thinking that way."

LeBlanc said it's not just about shopping local, it's about shopping small. She said people are used to going to big department stores and getting everything at once. They're not thinking about going to five different retailers, such as specialty stores, she said. 

"That's the shift that we need to push." 

Store owners across Toronto, including LeBlanc, are asking residents to get their Christmas gifts at local shops this year to help small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michelle Wasylyshen, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, said the time before Christmas is critical for small business owners.

"With many businesses forced to closed in Toronto and Peel, it's more important than ever to support local merchants who work hard to bring main streets to life. Our local retailers have always been there for us and now it's our turn to be there for them. Every day counts," Wasylyshen said in a statement on Sunday.

Shauntelle LeBlanc, owner of Ethel 20th Century Living, is pictured here on a couch in her store with her cat Isaac. (Dave LeBlanc)

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said many small retailers have reported that the six weeks before Christmas represent up to 40 per cent of annual sales. The CFIB urges Toronto residents to choose local, independent businesses whenever they can in the next three weeks because he said it will make a difference.

"Even in an ordinary year, the period leading up to Christmas is a critical time for small, local businesses," Kelly said in a statement on Sunday.

"But this year is even more critical. After nine incredibly challenging months of COVID, many small businesses saw the holiday shopping season as their last hope to keep their lights on and to build a bit of a reserve for the lean months expected in January, February and March," he added. 

"But the fresh retail lockdown of small business has dealt them a crushing blow by the Ontario government. Not only are they prevented from serving even a handful of customers in-store, but they're watching crowds of consumers lining up at big box stores where they can purchase the same kinds of non-essential goods."

Small businesses 'doing their best' to serve customers

Kelly said small businesses, however, are making the best of the situation.

"Many small firms are doing their best to continue to serve customers while in-store options are unavailable. Thousands more small firms have started an e-commerce site over the past few months," he said.

Kelly said if shopper cannot find their favourite business online, they should call them. "Many have created new options like curbside pickup, advice over the phone, or displaying their products over a live video call."

Kelly estimates that one in seven small businesses are not expected to survive the pandemic. He said shopping decisions now can determine whether neighbourhood shops will survive when the pandemic ends.

Epiphany Amba, left, and Natalee Jannetta, right, owners of Good Intentions, say business has been good. Jannetta says: 'I would say, since the pandemic happened, people have started to realize the importance of shopping local. And that has been to our benefit.' (Submitted by Good Intentions)
 

For Natalee Jannetta, co-owner of Good Intentions, a curated boutique and event space for small business, also on the Danforth, business has been good.

In exchange for a membership fee, the store promotes and sells products of its members through its retail space and online store. Members have access to marketing resources and keep 100 per cent of their online and in-store sales. The store sells an "eclectic" mix, she said.

"We're definitely encouraging people to shop local," she said. "I would say, since the pandemic happened, people have started to realize the importance of shopping local. And that has been to our benefit."

She said she and co-owner Epiphany Amba, a photographer, have been doing some Amazon comparisons on their social media sites.They have taken Amazon bestsellers and matched them with products carried in their store to show people that shopping local is easy and achievable if people are willing to put in the effort to do the research.

Jannetta and Amba came up with a pandemic plan because the store opened on Nov. 1 when the second wave was underway. When the lockdown started, they introduced free delivery throughout the Golden Horseshoe. The store also has a sign that encourages window shopping and they have contactless payment method on the spot.

"I wouldn't say that we're struggling," Jannetta said.

But she added of the lockdown: "I think it was neglectful, to be completely honest. This is the most crucial month of the year for retail, especially in the handmade and artisan small business community."

Shows and markets have all been cancelled, she added.

As for LeBlanc, she said online shopping and curbside pickup is more work. The inventory has to be put online. Then there is advertising and paperwork. People need to get used to shopping online. And what is lost in online shopping is impulse buying, she said.

"That's how we make our living, with the small stuff. I've always said with a shop like mine: 'I'm not paying my mortgage with sofas. I'm paying my mortgage with candlesticks,'" she said.

She said she feels betrayed by the Ontario government, saying the lockdown should have been in October. Small businesses, unlike big box stores, do not have the luxury of planning long-term. 

"They could have done this better. We weren't prepared for this. We're suffering. But we're doing okay."

now