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Ottawa thrift store owners challenged by ever-changing restrictions as city borders on red zone

“How can we be as safe as possible, but still make sure that, as a small business, where we're remaining viable, that we can stay open and survive the pandemic,” says Stacey MacLellan, owner of the thrift consignment store Plato’s Closet.
Consignment stores. Photo/ Trove Fashion

As Dr. Vera Etches warns Ottawa that the city might shift into the red zone, many business owners are worried as to how that’s going to impact their stores. 

The red zone restrictions for retail stores would require owners to have a capacity limit, physically distance their customers inside and outside their store, as well as implement “passive screening,” which would include signage asking customers whether they’ve experienced any COVID-19 symptoms.

Stacey MacLellan, owner of consignment store Plato’s Closet, is concerned that additional measures could harm her business in the short-term.

"We can't afford, as a small business, to have someone standing at the door, counting people in and out for the 11 hours that we're opened every day,” explains MacLellan.

“If we were to do it at a $14 plus minimum wage, [it’s] a lot of money to put out when we're only allowing 25 people in our store to shop.” 

MacLellan, who owns both branches on Merivale Road and St. Laurent Boulevard, recalls that both previous COVID-19-related lockdowns were especially devastating because once her stores closed, she had no choice but to let a couple of her staff go for time being, which also meant losing sales.

Though she was able to keep a few of her staff members to assist with online sales and curbside pick-up services, the reduced number of customers is something she's still getting used to.

“We're in retail -- we're very social people [and] we’re used to interacting constantly with the customer,” says MacLellan. “And, you know, during the shutdown, all we could do was wave at them through the window. So it's hard, you know. We get to know our customers and some people will come in multiple times a week.” 

Mona-El Rafie, the owner of the consignment store, Rikochet Resale says that she was disappointed when the bigger retail stores were allowed to stay open while smaller (non-essential) thrift stores, continued to lose business while they were closed for long periods of time.

She says there still needs to be a larger incentive for people to shop local.

“If [you] keep Costco and Walmart open, but all small businesses have to close, the impact that puts on business owners is massive, and it's just a complete breach of the responsibility to their citizens,” says Rafie. “And not just that, but you're basically telling other citizens it's okay to shop at Costco and Walmart or not shop at local businesses,”

MacLellan, whose store caters mostly to teenagers and young adults, agrees with the fact that when smaller thrift stores were closed, people were essentially directed to shop at bigger retail stores, even if it was unaffordable in some cases. And since there is a greater demand for 'thrifting' amongst the younger generation, it baffled MacLellan to see smaller thrift stores closed.  

"If you're in lockdown [and] if your clothes don't fit or you need new shoes or new boots or winter jackets, there weren't any thrift options in terms of what was opened,” MacLellan explains. “So I think that was a little bit perplexing that the government didn't recognize that those stores that were remaining open and selling things that they were; those small businesses that were deemed non-essential [were] put at a disadvantage,”

There is also a sense of isolation felt among a few of these thrift store owners. Rafie says that customer engagement is a key aspect but when all the surrounding stores are closed, it left fewer customers trickling in. 

“When you look around, you see a lot of empty stores everywhere and that also brings down every other business as well,” says Rafie. “So your survival does rely a lot more on being online and interacting with your customers in different ways.”

Kelly Gawargy, the owner store of the consignment boutique, Trove Fashion, says before the pandemic, there was already great support for shopping local, specifically because her store is located in the heart of the Hintonburg area.

Gawargy, who created her store in 2017, says although she’s created an online store, the sales are not nearly as high as when she first started. The one thing she misses is also the regular social interaction with her customers.

 “I think that we are lucky in a sense because we do a lot of business online, I do a lot of Instagram sales - but it’s not really the same,” says Gawargy, adding that planning ahead might not be the best thing to do, especially when there's so much uncertainty. “That's basically what I pivoted to, initially, when we first closed and then, now it's just been so back and forth,”

The constant opening and closing of a small business presents its own set of challenges, but not knowing what’s ahead in terms of a shutdown or red-zone restrictions can be devastating for the mental health of the store owners as well. Rafie, who owns both stores in Barrhaven and Westboro, says that shutting down small businesses on short notice, for example, is not feasible.

“It's very hard to imagine the stress that we have to go through every day, just to make sure we survive,” says Rafie. She says there is a lot of preparation to shut down and re-open her store. 

If Ottawa does implement red-zone regulations especially for small businesses, MacLellan says that her biggest challenge will be keeping up with what the regulations are, not just for employees but for her customers as well. 

“It's not that much different than where we're at right now, the challenge right now is what we're required to do, as a retailer, and all of the regulations that keep changing,” she says. “How can we be as safe as possible, but still make sure that as a small business, where we're remaining viable, that we can stay open and survive the pandemic?"

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