“Downtown feels like a ghost town on Saturdays. The only positive thing is you will find a parking spot,” says Nives Lariviere, a sales associate at Modern Eyes Gallery on Perron Street in St. Albert.
In past years, up to 15,000 people or more would jostle for parking space and jaywalk across roads carrying bulging bags from the St. Albert Farmers’ Market.
For the normally quiet commercial strip on St. Anne Street, Perron St. and St. Thomas, the market was a financial boon. But due to the pandemic, the 2020 market relocated to Servus Place to better control numbers of shoppers. As a result, the downtown core is taking a huge financial hit from a severe shortage of foot traffic.
“I didn’t think it would affect us that much, but I’ve really noticed a difference in traffic,” said Modern Eyes manager Susan Jackson. She estimates the gift store lost 50 per cent of its cash flow since COVID-19 forced brick and mortar businesses to shutter their doors.
Every downtown venture the Gazette spoke with has watched their revenue fall as the gravity of the situation slowly hit home. Virtually all have struggled to relaunch their operation as income drops and bills pile up.
After absorbing the initial unprecedented impact of the pandemic, businesses in the heart of downtown hoped big events such as the Children’s Festival, Rainmaker Rodeo, Rock’n August, the Snowflake Festival and especially the four-month long farmers’ market would buoy operations.
But as events were postponed or cancelled, business owners' hopes for increased foot traffic were derailed. The gloomy impact on operations is shared across the country.
In May 2020, a CIBC study noted 81 per cent of Canadian small business owners said the pandemic had a negative impact on their operations. From those numbers, 32 per cent worried about the ability to successfully manage their business, and 85 per cent cited the uncertainty of COVID’s duration as the hardest facet to deal with.
“We’ve found people want to get out. And that means treating themselves to buy a gift. For us, our Christmas season is going to be the make-it-or-break-it point,” Jackson said.
Another business taking a wait and see approach is Macarons & Goodies, a French style bakery and café on St. Thomas Street. Unlike Modern Eyes Gallery, a staple in St. Albert for 19 years, Macarons & Goodies first opened its doors in 2018.
“To be honest, I rented here because of the farmers’ market. I knew if it ran from June to October, I could make good money,” said owner Fadoua Derbel.
She has seen a 50-per-cent loss in revenue from COVID-19 and a 60-per-cent decline in Saturday business due to the market’s move to Servus Place.
“To be honest, I’m scared (the market) will continue at Servus Place. It’s not just me. It’s all the business owners downtown.”
With a steep drop in business, one of Derbel’s additional frustrations is a lack of support from her landlord. The provincial government offered short-term rental assistance to small businesses that lost 50 per cent of their business or more due to COVID.
In the assistance plan titled Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), the government would pay 50 per cent of the rent, the tenant would pay 25 per cent and landlords would absorb the last 25 per cent. Both landlord and tenant are required to participate. Derbel says her landlord refused to share a role.
“If we close, she has to pay the full mortgage of this building. Isn’t it better to help for a few months?” she asked.
Just several doors down from Macarons & Goodies is Cloud Nine, a boutique that specializes in women’s pyjamas, nightgowns, lounge wear and body products.
“The market has had a significant impact. Our traffic is down 50 per cent and our revenues were significant on Saturdays,” said owner Bob Zechel.
“You can’t get better advertising than 15,000 people walking by your store – and whether they pop in or not doesn’t matter. We look at it as a great marketing opportunity.”
When the pandemic forced a two-month closure, Zechel ramped up sales on Cloud Nine’s online store.
“We generated a bit of revenue from online orders. They are our saving grace. It will allow us to come out the other end.”
Zechel believes it could be two years before his store is back generating the same amount of revenue it was before COVID-19.
“Even getting back to 90 per cent may not be enough for some businesses that are operating on thin profit margins.”
Over at Candy Bouquet on Perron Street, Jayden Shermack said the shop’s difficulties started last Christmas.
“We had a lot of suppliers shut down. When COVID happened, we didn’t know what to do. Once we reopened, we’re doing 70 per cent of what we normally do. And that’s just to remain flat. We were planning on growing 10 to 15 per cent this year, but that’s not going to happen.”
Across the street, Confections Cake Co., an elegant dessert bar that opened in March 2018, is feeling the pinch as well. It has cancelled cooking classes, bookings for special events and weddings. Once serving a capacity of 56 people, it now accommodates 21 guests seated at small tables divided by plastic partitions.
For partners Jarrett Delaney and Brittany Allen, market Saturdays injected much needed cash into their new brick-and-mortar venue.
“The walk-in traffic made a huge difference. People were coming in for coffee, breakfast and lunch. People came from out of town, discovered us and set bags down and had lunch,” said Allen.
Since the market was one block away, the couple also rented a stall at the market, something that not only brought in revenue, but also a broader range of exposure. This year, distance made rental of a market stall not viable.
Small businesses are experiencing more than a financial hit. For some such as Delaney and Allen, there is a loss of dignity in asking for support.
“There shouldn’t be, but there is. A lot of people wouldn’t want to say it in public. But there were times I would feel defeated. We know people are dealing with issues and we have to say it, but it’s very hard to say we’re hurting and need help.”