Winnipeg businesses grateful ‘buy local’ support kept them afloat during holiday season

In the dead of a Winnipeg winter, some local business owners are grateful to be seeing green after the busiest shopping season of the year was thwarted by another lockdown, layoffs, and extended COVID-19 restrictions.

“The timing was just so poor,” said Shauna Lee Hlady, who owns Shauna Lee Boutique, a 1,000-square-foot boutique in Southdale.  

“The first lockdown was in March and April — my two best months for spring sales. And now [another lockdown in] November and December, my two strongest for winter. It was very, very scary.”

The province imposed new rules under the red, or critical, level of the Manitoba’s pandemic response system in November. In addition to restricting gatherings, the rules ordered non-essential businesses to close to in-person shopping, and prohibited the sale on non-essential items in store, leaving delivery and curbside pickup the only options for many.

The restrictions were recently extended until Jan. 22.

Hlady knew her business couldn’t survive a total shutdown during a second lockdown. So she shifted to marketing her apparel and giftware online, with curbside pickup and making home deliveries after work. 

Her customers, she said, came through in spades.

“I was overwhelmed by their kindness and support, [like] buying gift cards for themselves because they said they knew I needed the money now. It was amazing. People took ownership and said, ‘This is our local store, we don’t want it to close,'” said Hlady.

Shauna Lee Hlady, owner of Winnipeg’s Shauna Lee Boutique, says she’s been overwhelmed by the support she’s had from her customers. (Shauna Lee Boutique)

Hlady said she has never worked so hard, and put in longer hours to make less than half of what she made during the same time last year. But she’s happy she’s still in business, thanks to her loyal customers.

Two other local business owners echo that sentiment.

Steve Hunt-Lesage owns Fat Iguana Kitchen, a home-based meal starter business in south Winnipeg that has a commercial kitchen in La Salle. 

He relied on farmers’ markets for a big chunk of his business, along with markets in Cityplace, at Assiniboia Downs and at the RBC Convention Centre in the lead-up to Christmas. With none of those options available because of the pandemic, Hunt-Lesage thought he was in for a horrible season, already losing tens of thousands of dollars.

“What was a game changer was moving to home deliveries. This turned out to be awesome,” he said.

“Twice the work for half the money, six days a week doing drop-offs — but customers loved it. We are pretty happy. We got by and we were busy. Sales have increased considerably,” said Hunt-Lesage.

Although options like the market at Assiniboia Downs, shown here in July 2018, weren’t available this holiday season, Fat Iguana Kitchen has managed to increase its product line and expand into new retail markets. (Sylvie Hunt-Lesage)

Expanding into retail markets is also breathing new life into his business. Now that he has nutritional labels on his packaging, his product is on shelves in the Pembina Valley, St. Malo, Winnipeg and even in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Over at Toad Hall Toys in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, Kari England is still tallying the numbers for 2020.

Financially, England says there’s no way it could be as good as the year before.

But England found new niches, like offering Christmas stockings targeted to kids of specific ages for $50 a piece.

The excitement and loyalty from customers were contagious. 

“We couldn’t process all the [online] orders, which is why we had to turn off our phones for three weeks and shut down the website the Sunday before Christmas. We did 6,000 orders in six weeks,” said England. 

“Feedback was great,” she said, banking on those feelings spilling over into the new year. 

“We hope once the doors reopen people will return and be happy they discovered these new gems in their lives,” said England.

Paradigm shift in shopping

In the fall, Winnipeg business owner Obby Khan launched, a one-stop online shop for products from dozens of Manitoba vendors, as an effort to encourage customers to buy local.

But even Khan couldn’t have predicted its success in a few short months.

The number of vendors who signed on jumped to over 400, with another 50 or 60 now waiting in the queue to sign on. 

Ninety-five percent of customers who used the site bought from more than three vendors, Khan says.

All of the local items are stored in a warehouse, orders are filled, and home deliveries are made for a flat $5 fee.

There were some hiccups along the way, as orders increased from 18 to 750 in two weeks, Khan acknowledges. When they hit 1,000 the following week, the online system crashed and adjustments had to be made.

 But positive feedback from vendors keeps pouring in. 

“Some said they did more sales on GoodLocal than they did all year. It allowed some businesses to make their mortgage payment and spend Christmas at home with their family,” he said.

“Some said the glut of inventory they had is now all gone. They have to take a pause to get more product to sell.”

The Shawarma Khan owner is hoping the new shopping trend will continue, as he plans to expand GoodLocal to include products from brewers, as well as hardware and pet food, and hopes to extend delivery to rural communities.

“I think there is a fundamental paradigm shift toward local — being mindful of where we are spending our money. If we can get this to  stick, we are in for a really good upswing here. As business owners, we have to make sure we keep up with the service,” said Khan.

Over at Shauna Lee’s Boutique, Hlady is preparing for a storewide clearance sale when stores can open their doors again. For her, the push to buying local has been a silver lining during an otherwise devastating pandemic.

“This has been a very positive aspect of COVID — bringing people together, rallying around each other,” she said.

“Spring, to me, is my starting anew time. I am feeling very optimistic.”

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