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Atlantic Canadian businesses in the middle of a make-or-break holiday season
The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lot of businesses throughout Atlantic Canada facing difficult choices.
It’s something Penny Walsh-McGuire of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce (GCACC) knows all too well when it comes to the members of her organization’s members, many of whom fell short of their revenue targets. Some are pondering whether they can afford to stay in business in 2021.
“I think owners have been making some difficult decisions all along,” said the GCACC’s CEO. “While I recognize, and certainly we appreciate, as do business owners, the supports that have come both from federal and provincial government, there’s just a sustainability factor as the pandemic continues on and the unknowns into the new year. Depending on the type of business you’re in and how you’ve fared the storm that is COVID-19, I suspect those conversations are happening in a lot of businesses — particularly those in the service industry or the tourism and hospitality industry.”
That’s why the GCACC and other groups are heavily promoting campaigns to encourage holiday shoppers to make an extra effort this Christmas to buy gifts from local businesses. The “Love Local, PEI” awareness campaign was launched in June to profile GCACC members and highlight the products and services available locally.
“We know that in times like these, it might feel easier for consumers to hop online and maybe purchase from some of the bigger stores like Amazon, but now more than ever, we know it’s important to support our local businesses,” Walsh-McGuire said, speaking with The Telegram Monday as governments in her home province and Newfoundland and Labrador announced a two-week exit from the Atlantic bubble due to rising active cases of COVID-19 in the region.
“They’re the backbone of the economy, and we felt as a chamber it was our role to promote this and remind islanders of this.”
Later this week, GCACC’s campaign will expand through a partnership involving all six chambers in Prince Edward Island and Innovation PEI. It will include contests, information on how supporting local businesses helps the economy and spread the message about the importance of the holiday shopping season for these businesses.
“It’s just a way to remind everyone of the options that are available here in our community and the focus is that we’re asking Prince Edward Islanders to put their money where their heart is — right here in our province.”
Business and Arts Newfoundland and Labrador produces an annual holiday shopping guide marketed to its member businesses, encouraging them to consider what local artists, authors and craft vendors have to offer. According to executive director Amy Henderson, there was a substantial uptick in interest for getting a free listing in this year’s guide.
“I would say three or four times the number of vendors (usually) interested in participating,” she said regarding the 53-page document, which can be found on the not-for-profit organization’s website — businessandartsnl.com.
Henderson believes a lack of the usual selling opportunities these artists would typically avail of — like craft fairs and holiday markets — has forced them to try and reach customers in other ways.
“Etsy markets are smaller, or people are reluctant to go out to things that feel like they might be bumping up against each other trying to get to booths,” she said. “In-person shopping has been cut off.”
Many of those same local arts and crafts vendors are now using online platforms to handle sales or simply connecting with shoppers via email. According to Henderson, the pandemic has been particularly hard on members of the arts community who do not draw on supplementary income from other lines of work.
“We wanted to be able to reach out to our business members and say, ‘Buy all your client thank-you gifts from an artist this year. Send out Christmas cards that are handmade rather than buying a box from a stationary store.’ It’s finding easy ways for people to buy local, buy something handmade.
“There’s a lot of noise out there right now about Black Friday sales and everyone’s Instagram feed is full of ads from big corporations. We wanted to make sure there was some noise coming out from the arts community about how purchases could be made locally.”
Halifax-based branding and marketing firm Revolve came out with its “Step Up for Local” campaign in the spring, branching out from the “Step Up Not Out” campaign it created in March to encourage the public to stay inside and prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
Specific to the holiday season, the “Step Up for Local” campaign recently launched a new initiative on its Instagram account @stepupforlocal. Revolve purchased $100 gift cards from 40 local restaurants, service providers and businesses. Those businesses subsequently decided to either top up the gift cards or contribute gift baskets for the project. Packages valued at $200 will be given away daily up to Dec. 24.
“Two or three weeks ago, we were having an executive team meeting here at Revolve, talking about how do we really drive this message home in this crucial period,” said Revolve CEO Phil Otto. “The Christmas season is the make or break every single year, pandemic or not.”
A colleague of Otto’s suggested the company put its money where its mouth was, which got the gears rolling for this new contest. Otto said the response so far has been fantastic, with interest growing quickly since Saturday’s launch.
“If the objective is to spread the word about the importance of buying local, then I think that’s we’re achieving that very quickly,” he said.
Public health and safety concerns are growing, particularly in Nova Scotia, where community spread is happening and 37 new cases of COVID-19 were announced Tuesday. Effective Thursday at midnight, all bars and restaurants within Halifax and some neighbouring communities will provide take-out service only. Gyms, libraries and museums will also close for at least two weeks.
Walsh-McGuire noted that businesses in her province will now rely solely on local residents for at least two weeks following the Island’s exit from the bubble, and added businesses are following public health guidelines and providing options for people who may not want to step inside. Those options include online shopping, delivery service and curbside pickup.
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John's.
This article has been edited to correct information about new public health and safety measures announced in Nova Scotia.