Buy-local push has Manitoba businesses stretched to the limit


The push to buy local this holiday season is overwhelming some Manitoba business owners, who are struggling to keep up with the avalanche of online and curbside orders. 

While the business is welcome, it’s pushing many to the limit and for some, including McNally Robinson Booksellers, it still won’t pull them out of the red this year.

“The amount of labour that this style of selling requires is two, maybe three, times higher than normal,” co-owner Chris Hall said. “On the other side of that, this a fraction of the sales we would be normally getting — so we’re earning much less [and] working much harder.”

Inside the normally bustling Grant Avenue bookstore, phones are ringing off the hook, online orders are surging and staff are working tirelessly to process and package hundreds of parcels for pickup and delivery. 

One of the biggest challenges, Hall says, is that the business isn’t set up to operate as online retailer.

“We’re reaching our physical limit,” he said. “We don’t have enough space to literally stage the items that need to be picked up; we don’t have enough computers to put more people on; we don’t have more phones to answer more phone lines.”

He is warning customers new orders may face delays of seven to 14 days.

Chris Hall, co-owner of McNally Robinson Booksellers, says the store is struggling to keep up with the surge of online and phone orders. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Meanwhile, with revenue almost halved due to the shutdown of in-person shopping, the company is staying afloat thanks to pandemic wage and rent subsidies.

“By the time the week before Christmas comes we would be about twice as much [volume] as this week,” he said. “But we can’t get to twice as much of what we’re doing right now, so we’re going to be way down.”

Winnipeg candle-company Coal and Canary, is feeling the heat too.

Online sales have skyrocketed much to the surprise of owner and creative director Amanda Buhse — who is first to admit you can’t smell her candles online.

Candle company fielding over 500 orders a day

“We basically are working around the clock to try and keep up with the demand in the orders,” she said.

Buhse has tripled her team, added night and weekend shifts and is working 16-hour days herself just to keep up. 

The business is averaging 500 to 1,000 orders per day, she said, adding they sell across Canada and the United States.

The owner of Coal & Canary attributes their booming sales to a desire by Canadians to buy local products. (© Alyssa Arnold Photography)

Trade shows and in-person shopping, the company’s biggest drivers of revenue, have evaporated with pandemic restrictions so the record online sales success has been a happy surprise.

The company has already exceeded last year’s sales by 50 per cent, Buhse said, adding she attributes much it of it to Canadians’ commitment to buy local.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “We have just been so blown away by the incredible support, of people that had never even shopped local before the pandemic happened and now they’re looking at local options.”

At Toad Hall Toys, in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, staff have turned off the phones as they work to process the volume of online orders as fast as they can.

“Between that and answering the door for pickup orders, it is all the seven of us can handle,” said a note from the shop’s staff posted to Instagram. 

Small business owners face burnout: CFIB

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business found small business owners are feeling the pressures of the pandemic and facing burnout as they enter the holiday shopping season.

A recent national survey found close to half of small business owners said their mental health has suffered during the pandemic and 45 per cent said they have worked significantly more hours.

“It’s been a very rocky start for a lot of retailers and other businesses too, that rely on the holiday season,” said Jonathan Alward, director of the Prairie region.

“Even though the buy local in Manitoba surge has been very helpful, a lot of businesses still aren’t anywhere near normal.”

In Manitoba, 48 per cent of the province’s businesses are fully open, 35 per cent are fully staffed and just 24 per cent are making normal sales, Alward said.

The challenges vary widely depending on the sector, he said, adding some are faring better than others.

“Think of any boutique — if you miss this season, your next season is going to be spring or summer,” he said. “You’re flush with inventory you’ve paid for and you can’t move. It’s a big concern.”

For many businesses, the pivot to online and curbside also comes with a price. 

“There’s so many added costs, whether you’re looking at more labour costs to do curbside pickup or delivery or, you know, you have a lot of costs associated with trying to keep your staff and any customers that can come in as safe as possible,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of sales missed out on because of that lack of in-person interaction.”

Ibrahim (Obby) Khan says Goodlocal.ca has been busy since it started helping local retailers a few weeks ago. (John Einarson/CBC)

In an effort to drive consumers to buy local, Winnipeg business owner Obby Kahn launched GoodLocal.ca, a one-stop online shop with dozens of Manitoba vendors.

“Think of Amazon and Etsy, but local,” he said. “Everything good, everything local we want on our platform, you order it, we package it for you on one nice box.”

Since launching in September, the site was averaging 20 orders a week. Sales gradually started to pick up as Manitoba moved to orange and then red on the pandemic response scale.

Last week, the site pulled in more than 700 orders forcing Khan to shut it down to catch up and increase capacity.

“It was panic,” he said. “We weren’t set up for that. We’ve had to move warehouses twice already. So we said, you know, we have to hit a little bit of a pause, kind of figure out our systems.”

He said the site will be up and running again shortly and he is grateful for the support.

He hopes Manitobans continue to be mindful of where they spend their money this season and the year ahead.

“Think about that,” he said. “Think of how that can help a family and have an immediate impact on our Winnipeg and our economy and everything going on in this great city.”

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