Selling Christmas has never been so hard. With restrictions and lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses that rely on a little holiday magic are struggling if not shutting down entirely.
The Miracle pop-up bar has become something of a tradition for west-enders in Toronto. It’s a gaudy homage to all things Christmas, complete with ugly-sweater-wearing servers and themed drinks. But an hour and a half before they opened in November Premier Doug Ford announced Toronto would be put into lockdown.
Luckily, when bar owner Nick Kennedy and his business partner Lauren McKenna were negotiating with suppliers, they put clauses in the contracts in case the pandemic got worse.
“There will be some losses,” says McKenna, “but we’ve really done our best to mitigate that. In fact, we planned ahead, which is definitely an advantage that we don’t take for granted.”
Independent businesses remain closed until the week of Christmas in Toronto and Peel region but they were struggling even before Ford put in place his latest lockdowns. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business reports only 30 per cent of its members had sales back to normal, and 60 per cent had yet to fully open.
“It’s troubling that these recovery indicators aren’t in better shape this late into the pandemic,” says the CFIB’s Laura Jones. “I thought by now we would have moved the needle more than we have.”
She says they’re fielding calls from members every day who are frustrated beyond belief.
“I can’t really give you their reaction without swearing,” she says.
There was plenty of that when Toronto’s Distillery District Christmas Market was cancelled. The annual event attracts more than 700-thousand people a year. But for one business at least, the alternative and scaled-down Christmas Village looked promising, at least for the week before the lockdown shut it down.
Melissa Austria of Gotstyle Menswear says the crowd was primarily couples who were more interested in shopping than Christmas cheer. With that gone she’s had to innovate.
“We all know that retail was changing but 2020 has pushed that change,” she says. “If you are not digital and not open to it, then you are in deep trouble.”
Austria says her holiday sales account for 30-40 per cent of her annual revenue. She’s now embraced virtual shopping on Instagram and Facebook and has a more robust website.
“It’s been a good way to test some of the new digital innovation that we were planning on doing,” she says. “Now we’re just trying everything at once.”
Even non-retailers are trying. Nick Milum and Derek Liu started “Bag of Toronto” in the spring as a way of boosting business in their west-end Toronto neighbourhood. The idea was to curate a bag of goods from a variety of stores and sell it for $60.
They thought they’d sell a few hundred bags over time but became so popular they expanded into five Toronto neighbourhoods. Proceeds so far are just under $100,000, all of which goes back to the businesses or to charity.
Their business model has proven to be so successful they’ve helped other BIA’s get organized. “Just recently The Forks in Winnipeg launched a grab bag as well,” says Milum, along with “North Bay, Ont., and then several other small neighborhoods in Toronto, the Kensington Market region, the Davisville neighborhood.”
Their goal, beyond sales, is to create interest and repeat business for the 55 stores they’ve featured thus far.
Miracle bar, for one, hasn’t given up on opening this year if the lockout is lifted.
“Our motto at my home bar Civil Liberties for the last, I guess, nine months now,” says Miracle’s Nick Kennedy, “has been ‘high seas make strong sailors’ and I feel like we’re going to have a really strong and vibrant industry on the other side of this.”