For many of Ontario’s small businesses that were fortunate enough to survive the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government-imposed shutdown of non-essential services, the days, weeks, and months since have been nothing short of arduous. The character and resilience of every small business owner in the province have been tested during this time. And now, just 242 days removed from that bleak announcement made on March 23, the Government of Ontario have announced yet another shutdown, the impacts of which, according to John Kiru, Executive Director at Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), could prove to be insurmountable.
“It’s no secret that Main Street has been under duress for a number of years now,” he says. “The combination of changing shopping patterns and behaviours and an increasing migration of consumers toward online platforms have been posing challenges to small businesses for quite some time. But the pandemic has served to amplify these challenges and the pressures that are on merchants, resulting in significant changes to the way small business owners operate. Main Street is not going to be the way we remember it by the time this is over. And, unfortunately, it will be reflected most negatively in the number of those that don’t survive the impacts of a second shutdown.”
A Matter of Survival
It was estimated in a report developed by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) back in July that one in seven small businesses in Canada were at risk of insolvency as a result of the impacts of COVID-19. This was a projection above and beyond the number of businesses that had already gone under up to that point, reflecting a startling consequence within the grim reality of the situation. Based on this statistic, the federation estimates that somewhere in the region of 158,000 small businesses will be forced to close due to circumstances surrounding the pandemic, a number that it suggests could rise to as many as 218,000 in a worst-case scenario – a scenario that could well be upon us. It all offers a relatively blunt assessment of the struggles faced by entrepreneurial merchants across the country, and a strong indication of the pivots or shifts that are required by them if they are to sustain the second wave of shutdowns.
“There have been a number of small businesses over the past several years that have recognized a need to move from brick-and-mortar operations to a brick-and-click offering,” says Kiru. “They are the ones that identified a shift that was already happening, positioning themselves in the best possible way to continue to succeed through this difficult time. But, for those who have not made the shift online, COVID has perhaps forced them to do things and make decisions that they weren’t comfortable with. The bottom line is that the need for small businesses to develop an online presence has become critical over the past nine months or so and will only become more important to the health of their operations as we move forward.”
The Shift to E-Commerce
Kiru, in addition to serving as TABIA’s Executive Director, is also Founder of Digital Main Street – an initiative which began back in 2014 with the objective of helping Toronto’s small business owners adapt to the demands and changes resulting from an increasingly digital age. He recognizes the hardships that small business owners have recently fought through, hardships that continue to linger, admitting that the timing of this current shutdown could be devastating for many with the holiday shopping season quickly approaching. He stresses his concerns about the balance sheets of small merchants come January and February of next year, but offers hope to them in the way of the services offered by Digital Main Street and its dedicated team.
“If a small business owner is committed and nimble enough to make the move to online, Digital Main Street can help get them and their products set up for e-commerce sales in two weeks,” he asserts. “It’s a shift that we’ve been encouraging small business owners to make, and supporting them in their efforts to do so, for several years now. Collectively, we recognize the value of traditional Main Streets as the lifeblood of the social and economic wellbeing of our neighbourhoods. The health and success of any neighbourhood is directly linked to the vitality of its Main Street and the vibrant merchants that make up its offering. Because we have an acute understanding of this connection, Digital Main Street is invested in improving the operations of small businesses everywhere and helping them make the shifts and pivots necessary in order to succeed.”
Social and Economic Lifeblood
Given the highly meaningful role that small businesses serve within the communities they operate, Kiru urges the participation of consumers right across the country to shop local this holiday season. And, amid all of the gloom of the pandemic and its negative impacts on small businesses in Canada, he sees an opportunity for them to develop meaningful communication with shoppers, to engage and connect with them, during a time when it’s perhaps needed most.
“Merchants need to focus on serving their own immediate communities right now,” he states. “They need to increase their presence within their neighbourhoods and market to the local customer and provide them with exemplary service, reminding them of the value of their business to the community in order to continue to enjoy their support. And, going forward, once merchants in the affected areas are able to reopen, it’s going to be about developing communication around building confidence in the consumer concerning the safety and cleanliness of their stores, by conveying the message that they’re doing everything that they can to take care of their visitors.”
More to Be Done
In the meantime, Toronto BIA’s and those servicing other provinces across the country are currently leveraging every channel possible to get the message out to consumers, encouraging them to shop online and to shop local this holiday season. But, according to Kiru, more needs to be done by everyone involved in order to give small business owners a fighting chance to emerge from these restrictions, and succeed beyond them.
“There is still so much that we can all do to help support the health of small businesses. For instance, there are considerations that the city can make with respect to easing up on parking bylaws and permits required to put products on display out on the street. If we can find some lenience that would make it easier for retailers to showcase their product outside of their stores and to execute on convenient and seamless curbside pickup options, then we can help them move some of their inventory during these challenging times in order for them to pay some bills, put some food on their tables and possibly build some savings.”