Will Canadians Shop Independent Local Stores this Christmas?

Retailers hope spirit of ‘buy local’ visits them again this holiday season 

Obby Khan places a box in a Good Local delivery truck in downtown Winnipeg on Oct. 29, 2021.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Avery Barsony loves the holidays, and this year is special: It’s her first festive season as a shop owner.

Ms. Barsony opened Chou Chou Cheri in Mississauga’s Port Credit neighbourhood in March to sell lingerie and lounge wear in a wide range of sizes and skin tones.

Ms. Barsony is excited to decorate the store and plans to make small bra-shaped ornaments for a Christmas tree in the shop window. But with that excitement is also the worry: Will last year’s widespread “buy local” movement, urging people to support small business affected by lockdowns, motivate customers to come through this year?

“Last year, I feel like I was really hearing about it constantly,” Ms. Barsony said. “This year I’m not hearing about it as much … [even though] we’ve lost so many of our local small businesses.”

For retail stores, it doesn’t get bigger than the final months of the year, when holiday-fuelled buying can make or break their balance sheets. Holiday spending will be especially crucial to small businesses that have endured 18 months of the pandemic, in which many stores were closed for weeks or months and supply-chain chaos made it difficult just to keep shelves stocked. Meanwhile, e-commerce spending spiked, with Canadian consumers often ordering from behemoths such as Amazon. In some jurisdictions, shoppers were allowed to keep buying from big-box stores such as Walmart while mom-and-pop shops were closed.

Innovation driving transformation of retail

Shoppers are aware of the upheaval. In a recent survey of 2,505 Canadians, conducted by Leger for the Retail Council of Canada, 78 per cent thought it was important to shop locally, especially to support those businesses affected by shutdowns.

But those good vibes do not necessarily translate into dollars. The survey respondents also said they were far more likely to shop at big-box stores than at independents – 53 per cent compared with 13 per cent, a spread that actually grew wider in 2021′s poll compared with the same in 2020.

“There’s a little bit of a paradox in the survey, because on one hand, people acknowledge the importance of shopping within their community, but on the other hand, they’ve said that it’s taken a lower priority,” Retail Council spokeswoman Michelle Wasylyshen said.

Last year’s holiday season was striking in terms of how many shoppers sought out connections in their local community, said Diane Petryna, owner of the Take a Hike + Take 2 Boutique in Thunder Bay.

“Those curbside pickups were magical and beautiful,” she said – even if she was spending half an hour at a time chatting with customers in temperatures of –30 Celsius.

But shoppers also bought more online with big retailers during lockdowns, and that was habit-forming for many Canadians, Ms. Wasylyshen said.

Obby Khan believes small retailers have to compete by making it easier to find them online. He co-founded Winnipeg-based e-commerce site GoodLocal.ca last year, as a one-stop digital shop for a variety of small retailers in the city. The site offers shipping for a flat fee, even on orders from multiple shops.

GoodLocal.ca has already started a social-media campaign for the holidays, with a video highlighting how COVID-19 has dealt a blow to local shops, with dramatic music playing over shots of “closed” signs in shop windows.

Mr. Khan said the digital campaign is intended as a “reminder” to people who care about buying locally, but might not be as exercised about the issue as they were last year – when many were vocal about trying to break their Amazon habit.

“My message to consumers would be, if you want to buy something, try to support local first,” Mr. Khan said. “That money helps pay for someone’s mortgage, their groceries, and it stays local. … It means so much more to them than it does to Jeff Bezos.”

Wooing shoppers is not the only challenge. Supply-chain issues have also thrown a wrench in retailers’ holiday plans, because of labour shortages, shipping delays and an unprecedented boom in demand for some items.

For Daniel Pelletier, owner of the Bear’s Den in London, Ont., moccasins are a big seller during the holidays. Before the pandemic, he could place an order from the manufacturer in Quebec and get the items within three or four weeks. Now, he said, he’s been told orders could take a year to fulfill because of a large back order and a shortage of skilled workers.

“I built the business, the clientele, off those moccasins,” Mr. Pelletier said.

Chantal Daniels, who sells a variety of Indigenous wellness products from Winnipeg, said her most popular item at this time of year is her Moon Phases and Medicines calendar. She is working with her printer to deal with a shortage of silk cover paper and wire coils. She has had to limit some colour and fabric options for her handmade star blankets because of supply shortages.

Ms. Daniels closed her brick-and-mortar gift store about a year before the pandemic, and now sells online only – a change she sees as fortunate.

“I just feel so bad for people who are still trying to struggle with monthly rent and monthly staffing bills, and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I was lucky I got out before COVID happened.”

At Treasure Island Toys in Toronto, co-owners Katie MacKinnon and Lori Parker are planning to send an e-mail to customers soon to remind them of the importance of shopping locally this holiday season.

“If we lose those stores, it would be a huge loss for the neighbourhood. You lose the community feeling you get from shopping on local streets,” Ms. Parker said. “… It’s not just a place to buy things, it’s part of the community.”


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