small businesses toronto

Small businesses in Toronto are struggling to survive on weak holiday sales during lockdown

This second lockdown in Toronto is especially poorly timed for small businesses, so it's no surprise it's having a major affect on holiday sales of newly opened stores and established shops alike.

Obviously, sales are important to small businesses year round, but the holidays are actually when they make the majority of their money.

"We make money in December that holds us throughout the year," says Nicole Babin of Token. "Without in-store shopping, our sales are way down."

Businesses like Token have scrambled to pivot to alternate ways of letting people shop in the face of a lockdown that bans customers from entering their stores. It hasn't been easy.

"We have yet to finish getting our online store up and running," says Babin.

"We have put all of our merchandise in to our front windows so customers can just walk up to the door and shop from the window and we've done a marketing campaign to show that off, but customers still don't realize they can just come to the door."

It's not that customers don't want access to the products of local businesses, it's just that the lockdown presents insurmountable obstacles.

Abigail Pugh of more recently opened housewares shop Izibele echoes the struggles happening at Token.

"Customers are trying to access my products. Instagram is useful. People find me here and DM me. I'm finishing up my website and that'll be the main avenue to find and buy from me. I sit in the locked down store and people knock on my door. Even singly and masked, they’re not allowed to enter," says Pugh.

"I can charge on Interac, as an e-payment. That's been useful. I've been biking and walking my products to whomever wants free delivery. My time is spent working on the e-commerce part of the website, and getting pieces to customers. But without a store this is very very slow."

small businesses toronto

Vintage items at Coffee and Clothing. Photo by Hector Vasquez.

Matt Schachtebeck of Coffee and Clothing is also frustrated that even with precautions, customers are not allowed to come into his shop, while at a mall right across the street many people are free to wander in and out.

"It's super frustrating being across from Gerrard Square and seeing the lineup of shoppers waiting daily to spend money at those box stores that are still open when we can't open our doors," he says.

Schachtebeck says this lockdown is worse for his business than the first, saying they were starting to recover in the fall but that vintage clothing sales are especially challenging at a distance.

Like Token and Izibele they've had to think on their feet to get their products to customers in different ways.

"The problem with our shop is that a lot of the vintage pieces we carry require trying on since there is not standard size range across the board. We do our best to reach providing accurate sizing as well as a sizing guide but it still hard to tell if that piece of clothing will fit you exactly how you want," says Schachtebeck.

"We have been working on moving all of our clothing online and have started to get some good web traffic, but nothing like what we were seeing in store. It's definitely forced us to think even more outside of the box to give the customers a similar buying/trying experience as they had in the store."

small businesses toronto

Token sells lots of body care products like soaps, bath bombs, balms and mist sprays. Photo by Jesse Milns.

The challenge of moving an entire physical store online is just one of many struggles these businesses are facing. 

"Illness, deaths, changes in stock, expectations of an online store are all things that are holding us back right now. We get lots of messages asking about very specific things, which we don't carry. I've held off buying much Christmas decor as we just can't afford to have things sitting right now," says Babin.

"Other challenges are that staff don't want to work. Why would they if they can collect EI?"

What's certain is most of Toronto's small business owners are nothing if not optimists. Pugh opened Izibele in the fall without knowing what the state of the world would be like come the holidays. All she knew was she wanted to bring a little joy into peoples' homes, and support small makers.

"It was an act of hope. I knew that people are spending more time at home and they are trying to make their spaces as beautiful and livable as possible," says Pugh.

Lead photo by

Jesse Milns at Token


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