Eastern Ontario small businesses prepared to pivot after seeing drop in sales following COVID reopening

Buying local was a pandemic priority, with small businesses stepping up to fill supply shortages. But in the months after the province reopened, sales have dropped for many, and there are a few reasons why.

My Local Markets in Kemptville, Ont. began in 2020 to fill a gap. A pandemic project for Darlene Collin, her focus was to get local products into customers’ hands quickly.

“I think I’m just proud that we were able to make some sort of contribution in a time when things were maybe not so happy,” Collin told CTV News. 

“I really didn’t expect it to last as long,” she added. “I mean, I don’t think any of us realized that we were going to be shut down as long as we were.”

What started with 13 local vendors grew to more than 200, offering everything from sauces to socks.

But over the past seven months since Ontario reopened, Collins says sales have steadily declined.

“We’re talking 70-80 per cent. We would run 200-250 orders weekly prior to the reopening and now we’re lucky to see 30,” Collins said. 

“We kind of knew that there would be a reduction. We’re hearing vendors talk about 40, 50 per cent reduction in sales year over year,” she said. “Even from the ones who are attending individual markets, they are working twice as hard because there is an abundance of markets, but maybe only seeing 40-50 per cent of the sales they did last year.”

Malina DOckendorff stocking a shelf at Rideau Roastery Coffee in Kemptville, Ont. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

For Malina Dockendorff of Rideau Roastery Coffee, she’s also noticed her sales drop, after pivoting her business from wholesale to direct sales during the pandemic.

“I completely redid my businesses model at the time, direct sales became much more important because people weren’t buying their coffee in cafes and people weren’t going into the office to get their coffee there so that is what I had to do,” she said. 

“Despite businesses being open again, I think people have less money to spend,” Dockendorff added. 

Local items are for sale at My Local Markets in Kemptville. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

Rising inflation, also not helping businesses, with consumers trying to stretch their dollar.

“The price of coffee has gone up, the price of bags has gone up, the price of shipping has gone up,” Dockendorff said. “So realistically, me selling in the wholesale model at this point, the profit margin is very low. I still need to rely on those direct sales that I sort of came to rely on during the pandemic, but those have dropped off as well.”

In comparison to this time last year, Collin says her team made nearly 300 gift baskets for the holiday season.

This year they have only received orders for 23.

“I think that there are a lot of opportunity to purchase local throughout the city in major grocery stores now and other businesses similar to ours,” Collin said. “If you walk into even our local Independent Grocer, you’ll see at the end of every aisle they have a local business on feature, so you can pick up local products right at your grocery store.”

“And I think overall, people are just, they’re busy, they’re out and living their lives again,” Collin added. 

Then there are delivery charges, where consumers are used to next day delivery for free, and not once a week like My Local Markets offers.

“In the Amazon era, seeing a delivery charge at the end of your order is not something that people are very receptive too,” Collin said. 

“We’ve always kind of thought it was a temporary project,” she said. “But with the reduction, this model only works in volume, so if we don’t have that much volume in terms of deliveries we need to change things up.”

Despite the downward trend, both businesses say they will adapt.

“It is normal for a business and I think there’s always the challenge in small business,” Dockendorff said. “I have lot of friends who have opened small businesses over the eight years I have been doing this. That’s always what I say, ‘This will pass. Well, this will pass, and then there will be something else.'”

“There are huge benefits to owning your own business and there are also challenges. Just how it is,” she said. 

“It was pretty incredible the amount of support that came out for local businesses and small businesses during the pandemic. It was very special to see and I was hoping that that would carry through,” Dockendorff said, with advice to those considering buying local during the holidays. 

“Even if it’s just doing 10 per cent of your gifts from local businesses, one extra sale to a small business makes such a massive difference. That’s how many small businesses are.”

“Obviously, the need for our service is not there the way it once was,” added Collin. “But we look forward to introducing new products through the coming years.”

“Local is going to be around forever, so I hope that as a community we can continue to support the small businesses,” she said. “These are the guys that support our hockey teams, support our local charities and initiatives, so we can’t forget about them.”

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