Ontario retailers are reopening – but a summer of uncertainty remains

As of Friday morning, the Knowledge Bookstore will be open for the first time since April 8 – but its doors will still be closed.

It’s the best way co-owner Sean Libbard can think of to manage the store’s 15-percent capacity limit as part of the first phase of Ontario’s reopening plan. In normal times, the Afrocentric bookstore in Brampton, Ontario, has three full-time employees, but after months of repeated lockdowns and capacity limits, Libbard and his wife, Carolette, are running things on their own. A sign on the door tells customers to knock or to call.

“It’s strange,” said Mr. Libbard. He is used to clients wandering freely, lying on piles, sinking into a couch to read, taking his time. If a lineup is formed, he worries about rushing them. “There are people who come here when they’re feeling stressed, they have things on their mind, they come in and we talk. Time has never really been a consideration.”

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Many non-essential retailers in Ontario will begin reopening to in-store customers on Friday after the latest government-imposed shutdown. But much uncertainty remains for businesses this summer, with stores facing tighter capacity restrictions for now, and other venues such as malls and cinemas closed.

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Ontario’s staged reopening was due to begin next Monday but was pushed forward by three days as the province exceeded its target of delivering the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines. The first step will allow outdoor dining in restaurant courtyards, shopping in non-essential retail outlets and outdoor gatherings of 10 or fewer people.

The Retail Council of Canada objected to Ontario’s deadline, arguing that the provincial government should apply the same rules to all retailers – including those with no street entrances to shopping malls, which are closed for now. Huh. RCC is also advocating for a capacity limit of more than 15 per cent. The industry group, citing statistics from Statistics Canada, said 85,500 retail jobs have been lost in Ontario since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which more than 32,000 were lost last month during the latest lockdown.

In other provinces where stores are allowed to open, many Harry Rosen locations are operating at 25-percent capacity, said Larry Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the menswear chain.

“Twenty-five percent gives us half the chance. It still respects the security requirements,” Mr. Rosen said. “At 15 percent, it’s very difficult to operate a business in a meaningful way.”

For example, Harry Rosen’s flagship store on Bloor Street in Toronto has five floors, and requires at least 25 to 30 employees to run. With its square footage, the capacity limit allows for a total of 70 people in the store at any one time, including employees. Mr. Rosen said locations in Ontario have brought back only about half of their workforce.

The Toronto-based chain has been affected by the cancellation of work-from-home shifts and formal-wear events such as weddings. While its high-end sportswear business has been strong and e-commerce has grown, Mr. Rosen said the majority of his customers prefer to shop in-store. Harry Rosen has been banned from frequent mall closures in Ontario; Nine of its 17 stores in Canada are in Ontario, but only three can reopen on Friday. The rest are in shopping malls and do not have street-facing entrances.

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“We’re going to avoid it, but it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It’s been very, very, very devastating for us.”

Some in the industry argue that the province should cast its net more broadly: About 42 percent of Cineplex Inc.’s 162 movie theaters are in Ontario, but theaters won’t be open until Phase 3.

“It doesn’t make sense. We’re no different than any retailer,” said CEO Alice Jacob. “It’s going to mean a significant impact.”

Since a 21-day gap is forecast between stages, theaters may remain closed until the end of July, a major loss from the summer blockbuster season.

“June is important, and July is very important to us, as far as the film slate is concerned,” said Mr. Jacob. “It’s really important that we stay open.”

Buyers’ expectations are also changing. At Staples Canada, Canada-wide changes to store layout and inventory have been accelerated at Ontario stores during the shutdown. Stores now have a dedicated section for cleaning products, and the company is ordering more work-from-home items.

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“We have reset our inventory to be relevant to a postpandemic consumer,” said David Boone, CEO of Staples Canada. Since many of the retailer’s customers are small businesses, they have seen an impact on them as well, especially for those in Ontario that were closed for the holiday season since late November.

“It was a big step backwards,” Mr Boone said. “…we are optimistic, if we can keep the opening going, these businesses can come back.”

But shopping still won’t look like it once did at Girl on the Wing in Hamilton, Ont., which sells clothes, accessories, and gifts old and new. Since the start of the pandemic, owner Whitney McMeakin has opted for appointment-only visits whenever she has been allowed to reopen. At 15-percent capacity, his tiny shop can hold only a few shoppers at a time. She doesn’t want people stuck outside the lineup, or feeling rushed to the change room trying to find the right fit.

“It’s a convenience factor, that when people book a time they are guaranteed that time. They don’t have to wait… or worry that they can go to another house. How close are you to the person of K,” said Ms. McMeekin. Booking also means that if the store ever needs to do contact tracing, they have information about it. Customers have so far adopted this system.

“It’s a little more relaxing. A lot of them haven’t been in these places for so long,” she said. “It’s a way to bring them back into the shopping experience.”

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