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Independent Toronto stores adapt to new reality by moving sales online

Toronto businesses that once relied on their brick and mortar stores for most of their sales are working hard to get used to a new and unstable normal: online-only sales.

The gift shop Merchant of York, florist Pictus Goods, and clothing store Lost & Found are just three local examples of stores having pivoted business models in order to survive the pandemic, and they say that the community they cultivated long before the outbreak has been a bolstering support in recent weeks.

“We have a lot of customers that are regular customers and loyal customers,” Merchant of York owner Randy Spearing told blogTO.

“And so when we sent out notice that we were closing our doors, we got lots of notes of support. And when we went online, they were some of the ones who bought from us first.”

Owner of Pictus Goods Jazmin Johnson echoes Spearing’s appreciation of the community. “I think a lot of people just in the neighbourhood are definitely even making small purchases just to support the shop in any way that they can,” she said.

Jonathan Elias of Lost & Found has noticed this effort in the community, too. He has seen customers buying a gift certificate just to show their support.

But while support remains this month, there's no certainty it will continue to translate to sales in the future as consumer spending power likely tightens as unemployment figures rise and covering the basics like rent and groceries remains the priority.

“Of course we hope it will continue,” Spearing said. “There's always the fear as a business owner that those sales will start to dry out.”

Sales flow one week, ebb the next, as customers themselves work out how best to financially navigate these uncertain times.

Spearing maintains that this pivot to online has been a significant change. Merchant of York has always been a neighbourhood shop, he said, and 90 per cent of the business it did was through the physical store.

While Johnson is glad that the option to go online is viable for her, she has noticed a decided dip in sales. “I rely on foot traffic for about 75 per cent of my sales,” she said, and at the end of the day online retail doesn't make up for the loss.

She has also noticed that going online at this time involves a lot more effort engaging with customers and encouraging them to make purchases.

the card wall. for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved buying cards from independent gift shops. every time I purchased cards at one of those shops, I honestly remember telling myself that I just couldn’t wait to have a shop that sells cards. I know it’s so simple, but I truly admire the card wall at the shop. I love re-organizing it and picking out new cards from my lovely vendors. when you find a good card, it has the ability to bring up so many emotions- some happy, some intense. a card for someone you love, a birthday card that reminds you of your friend who lives far away, a card for your sibling that’s just had a baby, a celebratory card for that special moment, a thank you for everything card, a sympathy card that says it all so that you don’t have to... you get the gist. and to add to it all, these are cards are handmade by lovely female illustrators. so much thought goes into these cards. I love them all so much ✨ (lately when, I look at the photos of the shop, I get really emotional and have definitely shed some tears. just trying to remember that it’ll be over soon and I will be able to re-open my doors to all of you lovely folks)

A post shared by Pictus Goods (@pictusgoods) on

“It's definitely a game on Instagram where you have to have followers to get sales, and they're following other companies and there's direct competition,” she said.

Local businesses that already had a robust online presence before the pandemic are likely finding it easier to transition to an online-only business model because the framework was already in place.

“Our focus was online from five, six, seven years ago,” Elias said. “So it's fortunate that we were concentrating on that from a while back.”

Business for Lost & Found has been steady Elias says, but he isn’t certain if this will always be the case. “Our first half was good, but we don't know what the future holds, so we're kind of treading lightly essentially.”

“We take great pride in the presentation of the shop and the experience of coming in and touching clothes and dealing with great people, and it sucks because we don't know what the future holds for that, and how behaviours will change and how people will change,” he said.

At the end of the day, these stores for Spearing and Johnson and Elias are more than just ways to make money.

“This is our baby, this is our passion,” Elias says. “And one of the things that drives the business is the people behind it [and in front]. The people who work at the shop and then the people who come into the shop, and to have that separation just sucks in a way where you can't have that interaction that people valued so much.”

While these are difficult times, all three business owners remain hopeful that a kind of normal will return in the next few months.

Spearing says the important message remains that we need to support our local small businesses, especially those that could not manage to go completely online.

“There are a number of businesses that simply don't qualify for any government aid that has been announced so far,” he said, and these businesses still have to pay rent while making a significantly smaller income.

“Please support small businesses, they are really the lifeblood of a local economy,” Spearing said.

Lead photo by

Careen Karim at Pictus Goods

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