The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be evenly distributed across Canada. Particularly vulnerable are the cottage-country businesses that depend on tourists and seasonal residents from the big cities to break even each year. TVO.org is speaking with business owners and industry leaders in rural Ontario to assess the economic toll so far and discuss what more can be done. Today: Sherry Peel, of Bigley Shoes and Clothing, in Bobcaygeon, two hours from Toronto.
Author’s note: My family has ties to Bobcaygeon that go back generations. It’s hard to explain what Bigley’s is to anyone who hasn’t visited. It started as one shoe store at the corner of one of the main intersections in town. Over the decades, it has steadily expanded, buying more and more streetfront shop space. Today, it sells everything from high-end fashion to small kitchen appliances to ice-cream cones and milkshakes. I’ve never seen another business quite like it. Bobcaygeon, sadly, became one of the epicentres of COVID-19 in Ontario, after disaster struck Pinecrest Nursing Home; to date, 28 residents have died. I wanted to speak with local business owners about how that small town, in particular, has been hit. Sherry Peel was good enough to oblige.
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Matt Gurney: Sherry, until someone’s been to Bigley’s, it’s hard to explain exactly what you are. But you’re an everything-store that’s slowly taking over Bobcaygeon. [laughs] How do you describe it?
Sherry Peel: [laughs] Ten stores under one roof, and big-city fashion in cottage country. Those are the slogans. But you’re right. I’ve been involved for 30, 35 years. My husband’s parents owned it. I came in as “the girlfriend” and started working here, and here I still am. And not only have we grown and done more things, but we’ve also turned from a store into a destination — people come from all over. Girls in Toronto hire a limo and come here to go shopping, have lunch in town, spend the night at the Eganridge [a local resort], and then go home.
Gurney: See, that sounds like marketing. But I know that’s literally the case, because I know people who do that and sometimes stop by my family’s place or meet us in town. I honestly don’t know any other store that has that kind of draw — not in cottage country, at any rate. Do you know where you get your customers from?
Peel: We try to find out. We ask for phone numbers. And definitely a huge part of our business comes from the Greater Toronto Area. But during our busy months — May to October — the population around here surges. The official year-round population is about 3,000 people. But, in the winter, maybe 1,200 of those people leave to go south. But, in the summer, we’ve got about 60,000. It’s a huge swing. So some of our customers are “local” and have phone numbers here, but that doesn’t mean they’re year-round. But we definitely know our business is hugely based on the cottage season. We do stay open in the winter, but we don’t make any money — revenue, sure, but no profits. When the weather is good, we make our money.
Gurney: That’s still a pretty long season. And you must have a lot of local support. You’re not just a tourism business — you sell clothes and shoes, and everyone needs that.
Peel: Of course. All the local moms come in here, too, when their kids grow out of their shoes or need new boots. We get terrific support from our local residents. But one summer long weekend, Canada Day or the August long weekend, is when we’ll make enough money to pay our staff over the winter months.
Gurney: Wow. And what are you seeing already? Bobcaygeon was obviously hit early by the pandemic.
Peel: It was. It’s heartbreaking for us. But, in a lot of ways, our challenges aren’t really that different, even though there’s tragedy right here. Retail is shut down. Everywhere. All over Canada — most of the U.S., too. So we’re not really facing that worse than others. Normally, by this time of year, I’d have 65 people working. Right now, I have four. At the summer peak, we’d have 80. I don’t know when we’ll be allowed to open at all.
Gurney: The people you have, what are you using them for?
Peel: That’s a really good question. We are allowed to stay open for “curbside” options. Basically, people can pick up orders at the store, and we can deliver them — we’re delivering within the town. Since we have a website, people can order from us, and we are allowed to fulfil those orders. But we are lucky. We just got our new website set up a few months ago. It was before this, but just before. Because of that, we can operate as an online business — so we’re doing e-commerce now. A lot of the retail in this town, where there’s no websites, they can’t open. So we’re doing enough business for me to keep four people on. But it’s not great for our kind of business. People like to touch the clothes and shoes they buy, try them on. We can’t do that now.
Gurney: But there’s not really any other choice. What else can you do? There are limits to how much you can adapt, obviously, given the nature of your business. You can cut orders for inventory, lay off workers, but you’ve got utility bills, you’ve got property tax ... what can you do beyond what you’ve already tried?
Peel: We’re trying to come up with things. But I actually want to talk about inventory. You just mentioned it.
Gurney: Yep, sure. Of course.
Peel: If I was in Florida — or some place with a pretty consistent climate, right? — I would be fine. I’d just sell off my inventory until it was low, and then I’d order more. But this is Canada. My inventory is seasonal. We order months in advance for the season. And, right now, I’ve got a store stocked full of rain boots and spring sweaters. We even have some winter stuff we might normally have sold off in March. Let’s be honest — no one is opening for a while. So when I am finally able to open, people might not even want to come in right away. We’re going to have to do marketing for that — tell people we’re open, we’re in business, we’re safe. Welcome back! But we need to get inventory that suits the time of year we’re reopening. No one knows when that will be. And it takes months to get your inventory orders placed and delivered. We’re already seeing problems. Factories are closed all over the world, and borders are closed, and shipping is disrupted. Some of the inventory we’ll just put away and sell the next time the season comes around. You can do that with some stuff. But we also sell high-end fashion. Miss the season, and it’s gone.
Gurney: Honestly, that had never occurred to me. What can you do? Do you just cancel orders?
Peel: We’re lucky. We’ve been here long enough that we have great relationships with our suppliers. And this isn’t just us having a problem. Everyone has this problem. So there’s a lot of goodwill right now. But we’re talking with the suppliers. Right now, we don’t have to cancel orders, because orders are getting cancelled by them. We placed our summer and fall orders months ago, and we’ll probably actually receive half that because of all the disruptions. So, at first, we thought, yeah, maybe we need to cancel orders. But we realize now we don’t have to do that. Anything that’s left after this year, or gets shipped and arrives too late because the factories weren’t offering, we’ll hold onto for 2021. We like to get our stuff early — sell our fall stuff to cottagers during the summer. But we just don’t know now. We’re watching our flow of goods very carefully, and we’ll adjust if we can.
Gurney: You also mentioned the need to get people coming in again. A big problem we’re going to have is that, even once the government says stores can reopen, there’s going to be a lot of fear out there.
Peel: And we’re thinking about that. The curbside options we’re using now are good. We’ll probably keep doing that. Even once the store is open again, people might feel more comfortable parking out front, and we bring their order to them. So we’re talking about that. Do we wear masks? Gloves? Plexiglass by the cash? We really have always wanted a casual atmosphere in this store — it’s cottage country! We sell the same stuff as the big city stores, but people come in in their swim trunks. We love that. It’s part of our culture here. But we need to see what people are comfortable with. We’re going to work harder. And, right now, there is also tension between the full-time residents and the cottagers.
Gurney: I was going to ask about that. You’re a seasonal business when the customers are being asked not to come.
Peel: Right? And there’s some fear in the village, too, about people coming. There’s fear. Fear of the virus, fear of not being welcome. There’s some community pages on Facebook, and there’s been some full-time residents getting quite vocal about this. And we have our customers calling us and saying, “Can we come? Will we be welcome?” It’s safe here. The tragedy at Pinecrest was terrible, but the virus didn’t seem to jump into the community, really. The grocery stores have plenty of supplies. And the businesses here, yes, we want you to come — be smart and be safe, but of course you’re welcome here. There’s fear on both sides. When we can open, my staff is going to be singing our welcome to people. Just be sensible. If people want to wear masks and gloves, that’s fine.
Gurney: You mentioned your staff. You’ve got four people working, when, normally, you’d have 65, heading to 80 people. How is the staff making do — is the government support helping?
Peel: Yeah. I talked to everyone. I said to everyone, if you’re in trouble, tell me. We’ll find ways to help. But my people were okay. They applied for the emergency benefit, CERB, and they got their money in a week. We hire 25 university students every year for the summer, and we’re talking to them, too, to make sure they get their benefits. We want to open. We want our people working. We’re having a managers’ meeting this weekend to ask what more we can do. We really want to put something in play and bring the team back. We want to do as much business as we can and have as many of our people back as we can. Our university students should have started by now.
Gurney: I don’t want to turn you into a spokesperson for the community, but I’m just wondering — what are you hearing from local businesses, local officials? I guess you guys are talking.
Peel: Yeah, and we have a local chamber of commerce, too. Everyone’s talking. And this is amazing. I’ve been having Zoom meetings with other store owners all over the country. [laughs] I’ve never been this close with my competitors! But, honestly, it’s really helpful. We’re all planning together, sharing information. How are we going to disinfect stuff? What about websites? Talking about how to bring customers back. We just bought some cleaning kits, this alcohol spray. It’s a new thing, for door handles and shelves and computer screens and stuff, and I told my peers about them, and my distributor said, “Sherry, wow. I sold out thanks to you!” He said I should buy stock in that company. [laughs]
Gurney: Well, you already sell everything else, so why not. Are you hearing from the government?
Peel: Not that much. Our employees did. They got their emergency benefits. But the way a lot of the business supports were designed, we don’t qualify. I know there’s a program to help with loans and stuff, assistance with the banks, and we may have to look at that. My father-in-law always said people won’t drive two hours to place an order with you. You need the inventory on hand. They want to leave with it. That’s our real hardship here. Businesses our size are in a hard place. But I am so happy they helped my employees. My accountant says we don’t know yet if my employees will need to pay taxes at the end of the year. So I worry about that.
Gurney: Do you need anything from the government?
Peel: Clarity. Information. And a bit of a heads-up before we reopen! We might need weeks to get ready. So we’d like to know when we might be able to and what those rules might be. Because when we open, we just have to cross our fingers and hope people come back to Bobcaygeon. When they do, we will welcome them.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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