Summer off to steady start, but concerns remain for downtown businesses

Schad boutique - downtown

For businesses in the downtown core, the summer season is off to a slow and steady start following a soft spring. 

Sarah Chown, managing partner of the traditional French restaurant Metropolitain Brasserie on Sussex Drive, said the return of tourists, including many international visitors, has helped increase foot traffic to the business. 

“Everything seems to be pretty on par with last year, which is getting on par sales-wise with the volumes we were seeing pre-pandemic,” she said. 

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But while the numbers are steady, Chown said businesses across the area will still be contending with other issues throughout the season. 

Rising costs are among the most pressing.

“I think the question we might want to be looking at is not necessarily about sales volume, but more about the bottom line,” she said. “A lot of our costs have gone up exponentially, just like they have for many households. The bottom line is not looking as good for many people as it has in the past.”

For restaurants, purchasing food and alcohol is increasingly expensive, while other operating costs are also on the rise. 

“The sales may be there for some of us, but the bottom line isn’t where it should be,” she said. “Many restaurants are currently operating at a loss.”

According to Restaurants Canada, as many as half of all restaurants are losing money, or just breaking even.

Chown added that while the Metropolitain’s numbers have remained steady due to increased tourism, other businesses are not seeing the same steady stream of customers. 

“We’re in a unique location, where we host that Parliament crowd for the majority of the year from September through to the end of June,” said Chown. “Then once Canada Day weekend hits, we shift into tourism mode down here.”

Downtown businesses in particular are contending with the new hybrid reality. While a summer drop-off is common as office workers and civil servants take time off, they still make up a significant portion of their customer base. And not all businesses draw in enough tourists to make up for the increased gap. 

Christine Leadman, executive director of the Bank Street BIA, said many local business owners have seen barely any tourist traffic. When that drop is combined with the reduced number of downtown office workers, as well as challenges finding staff, some businesses have been forced to reduce hours. 

“We haven’t seen an uptick in foot traffic at all,” she said. “It’s very minimal. We’ll see possibly in August, because of Pride Month, we’re hoping for some more foot traffic at that time. But June and July have not been so good.”

According to Leadman, traffic to downtown businesses has long been on the decline, with customers facing plenty of barriers that keep them away. 

Safety in particular is top of mind for Leadman, who said more resources are needed for homeless people and those dealing with addiction, issues that local business owners are not equipped to handle on their own. 

“If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to come downtown,” she said. “There needs to be an action plan that’s put in place immediately. If the downtown core is going to survive, where you need to put money is into the care of people.”

Other factors like spotty public transit, including the LRT shutdown that’s expected to continue at least into next week, are also keeping people from venturing downtown, according to Leadman. 

Chantal Biro, owner of luxury women’s clothing store Schad Boutique, said she’s had to make major adjustments to the way she does business. That includes stocking more casual clothes over office wear and shifting her products to target online shoppers. 

“COVID really changed people’s habits,” she said. “My local customers are still supporting me, they’re still shopping, but they’re not coming into the store as much. They got used to shopping online. My online sales are healthy, but I’m not seeing the foot traffic from my regulars.”

Other factors have also kept customers away. 

“The weather hasn’t had a great effect on businesses in general,” she said. “We had a cold spring, and then we went into super heat mode. It’s difficult if it’s too hot, because people don’t want to come in and try on clothing.”

Biro said she has also felt the impact of hybrid work, but that’s been somewhat tempered so far this year. While there has also been some tourist traffic in her store this summer, business travellers have made the biggest comeback in the last few months. 

“That’s made a big difference,” she said.

While Biro said traffic has been steadier than she anticipated so far this summer, it’s been a late start for clothing retailers.

“Overall, things have picked up in the last three weeks. We’re just kind of late,” she said. 

“In talking to other retailers, it’s pretty much the same everywhere. I probably went on sale a month earlier than I normally would, just to get more business, but some stores were going really early in May. It isn’t great because April, May, and June are our key months for the spring-summer season.”

Still, Biro said local business owners remain cautiously optimistic as autumn approaches. 

“It’s always hard to predict, but everyone seems to have the impression that it’s going to be a strong fall,” she said. 

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