Pandemic pressure may be fatal to many retailers, small business owners fear

The doors to the largest mall in Newfoundland and Labrador remain open, but of the 140 stores and businesses at the Avalon Mall, only a handful are operating. 

The COVID-19 crisis has forced the closure of many stores, including That Pro Look, which has been selling sporting goods for 25 years.

“We’ve seen great times, we’ve seen lows. You know, you’re going to have three or four good years, and then there’s going to be a lull, but this one is rock bottom,” owner Paul Thomey said. 

 “I have never experienced anything like this before.”

First, the blizzard and state of emergency dubbed Snowmageddon shut down St. John’s in January. As business started to pick up, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close up shop in March. 

A vocal advocate for small business, Thomey has been involved with the St. John’s Board of Trade, serving as its president in 2003. He’s also a member of Save Small Business, a national grassroots organization made up of 35,000 businesses, which recently sent a petition to government in Ottawa. 

Paul Thomey, seen in a file image from a CBC interview, says it was very difficult to lay off employees, some of whom are family. (CBC)

This week Thomey sent a letter to the federal, provincial and municipal governments, calling for three things: 

  • An immediate moratorium on commercial evictions.
  • A deal for rent relief.
  • Provision of three months of property tax abatement. 

“Small business is the backbone of this country and [employs] many, many people,” Thomey said. “Hopefully there is a package being put together.”

A lot of people aren’t going to survive.– Mike Howard

Since shutting down, Thomey has had to lay off nine employees — including his wife, niece and son-in-law.

“That was one of the toughest things I had ever had to do, to hand a layoff notice to people who are not only family but have been with us for a long while,” he said.

“Our niece has been with us since Day 1.”

That Pro Look had hoped the NHL playoffs would be a big boost to its business. (Paul Thomey)

Tough times downtown

In downtown St. John’s, Mike Howard sells a different product but tells the same story. 

Isla and Sam’s Shoes opened up in October. It’s hasn’t been a comfortable year for his new business. 

Isla and Sam’s Shoes closed in March but its online store is now up and running. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

“We had a pretty good start to our run and then Snowmageddon reduced the sales … quite a lot and then the pandemic started to take hold,” said Howard. “By the beginning of March, customers started to stop coming.”

The slowdown caused by COVID-19 forced Howard to lay off his four employees. 

“That was tough,” he said. “You know they were a little bit worried. We had to get the record of employment into the government to make sure that they were going to be paid right away,”

Howard then made the jump to put his products online, a process that a few weeks to get going, he said.

“There was a lot of work involved,” he said. “We just got that up and running last week and it’s pretty slow moving.”

‘Falling through the cracks’

Howard, who has been in business for more than 30 years, agrees help is needed for small businesses in St. John’s.

“You lose a lot of businesses and are still paying rent, still paying taxes to city and they still have their debt load and some of the suppliers are still looking for money,” Howard said.

“There are a lot of issues with small business. A lot of businesses are falling through the cracks, where they don’t have the help.” 

Isla and Sam’s Shoes owner Mike Howard hopes that relief is coming for small businesses. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Howard would like to see the banks help out.

“They’re still charging interest, and it [is] time for the banks to to step up and to take a rung on the ladder with the rest of us,” he said. “Start to help small business survive this period.”

Thomey and Howard said their businesses are full of seasonal stock they cannot sell. 

“We do a huge amount of soccer business … with soccer cleats and shorts for the kids,” Thomey said.

“Right now the soccer associations don’t know if they’re going to have a season. So we’re in a bind.”

As the owner of the Water Street building that houses his shop, Howard is luckier than most. He has plenty of summer stock, but without a return to a normal timeline the future is uncertain. 

He noted you cannot sell sandals in October. 

“We don’t want to think about having to close, but there are a lot of people not going to survive.”

This motivational graffiti adorns a downtown St. John’s wall. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

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