Low sales, fewer customers creating dire situation for Alberta small businesses: CFIB ​

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Alberta small business, and a new survey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business paints a bleak picture heading into the fall and winter months. Adam MacVicar reports – Sep 3, 2020

A newly released survey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business shows Alberta small businesses remain tough as the province enters its sixth month of COVID-19 infections.

The survey, conducted on Aug. 27, attributed fewer customers and lower sales as the root causes of a slower recovery for Alberta’s small businesses.

“It’s really quite concerning,” CFIB Alberta provincial affairs director Annie Dormuth said. “We’re well into phase two of our economic relaunch where a lot of businesses are allowed to be open right now, and yet are not seeing those return to normal sales that are really critical to their survival going into the fall and winter months.”

Watch: 60 per cent of restaurants could close permanently in next three months, warns Canadian Chamber

Nick’s Steakhouse, a Calgary restaurant celebrating its 42nd year in business, is one of those small businesses that has felt the brunt of the economic impact.

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According to owner Mark Petros, the restaurant was forced to lay off 56 staff members and adapt to a new online ordering, delivery and takeout system.

“When we were closed during the first three or four months and just doing takeout, we didn’t even turn the lights on in the bar here or turn on the TVs. I cancelled our cable because I had to save money in order to maintain operations,” Petros said. “Thank goodness we’ve been able to do that.”

The restaurant has since re-opened for dine-in service, and Petros said more than 20 staff members have been re-hired, but businesses is not what it was before the pandemic.

“We’re only doing a third of what we used to do,” Petros said. “We’re one of the fortunate ones, from what I’ve heard.”

Only 23 per cent of Alberta small businesses said sales had returned to pre-COVID-19 levels despite 67 per cent of small businesses being re-opened, the CFIB survey said.

The CFIB said just 39 per cent of Alberta small businesses are fully staffed.

The business group’s survey showed another 19 per cent of small businesses in the province said they are considering closing.

“That is one in five small businesses along Stephen Avenue, 17 Avenue, and Inglewood, that may not be there unless they have critical supports going into the fall and winter months,” Dormuth said.

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She added the CFIB is calling for an expansion of supports through federal and provincial programs.

The federal government announced the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), which provided businesses with financing for expenses that cannot be avoided or deferred, has been extended until October 31, 2020.

The Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) for small businesses has also been extended by the federal government until September 14, 2020.

“Coupled with that, Alberta’s Commercial Eviction Protection Act also ended on August 31,” Dormuth said. “So right now, Alberta small businesses, especially with these economic indicators being quite low, are in a very vulnerable position.”

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Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s newly minted minister of jobs, economy and innovation, said his department is working on implementing the province’s recovery plan as quickly as possible.

“We’re continuing to work with our federal partners to make sure we have a game plan for Albertans. We want to make sure we listen to them so we have that road map so they can have that confidence they can restart,” Schweitzer said Thursday. “Our grant program that we had there to get Albertans that start-up capital again and get inventory up, we’ve seen some pretty good uptake on that program and we’re going to make sure we continue to be there for our small businesses.”

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According to the minister’s office, the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant has had more than $57 million in uptake on roughly 15,000 submitted applications since the program launched on June 29.

The CFIB said it’s working to lobby the province to ease eligibility for the program, which provides businesses with up to $5,000 to offset costs due to the pandemic.

“The average turnaround time is about 10 days between application to money going out the door, so we’ve had some good success with the program,” Schweitzer said. “But we’ll continue to listen, if there are tweaks that need to be made, we’ll be sure to listen to those small business owners.”

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Petros said there are no plans to close the restaurant, thanks to the generosity and support of Calgarians.

“We hope to be here for many many years,” Petros said. “We really love and appreciate it.”

City of Calgary partners with ShopHERE

Meanwhile, the City of Calgary has announced a partnership with Digital Main Street’s ShopHERE, a program supported by Google, to help support small businesses.

The city is piloting the project with the goal of setting up 90 small businesses and artists with online storefronts.

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“Many Calgary small businesses took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and several more are still unsure about how they will recover,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a statement. “As we navigate our reopening, we are focused on the ways we can continue to support businesses. Getting online could help Calgary’s small businesses and artists be more resilient in the future.”

The program is set to partner businesses with MBA students that will provide 17 hours of hands-on support including set up, training and launching their online business.