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Quebec retailers see slower sales, changed customer behaviour since reopening


MONTREAL — More than two weeks after being allowed to reopen following the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, Quebec store owners are finding that permission to open up doesn't mean a return to business as usual.

While many other provinces are just beginning to ease partial lockdown measures, most Quebec retailers outside the Montreal area have been allowed to open since May 4, as long as they have a door to the outside and can ensure physical distancing.

Store owners contacted by The Canadian Press report lower-than-usual sales and a drop in customers — but they say those who come are there to buy.

Georges Dussault, who owns an antique shop in the Laurentians area north of Montreal, says business has been "very, very quiet."

Dussault, who has been in the business for 30 years, says he's heavily dependent on tourists who visit the scenic region north of Montreal.

Since reopening last week, Antiquites la Maison Bleue has seen only one to three customers per day — most of whom are buying smaller items such as old doorknobs or window frames for renovation projects. It's better than nothing, he says.

"There's aren't a lot of people, but they all buy something," said Dussault.

He believes that in uncertain times, people are trying to save money rather than splurging on a special piece.

He's seen tough times before and expects to survive this one as well, although he may have to remortgage his building if things don't pick up eventually.

In Sherbrooke, about 150 kilometres east of Montreal, Kim Pare Gosselin's clothing boutique has been faring a bit better.

Pare Gosselin says sales at Belle et Rebelle are at about 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, even with only a quarter the customers.

In the absence of office workers and downtown foot traffic, "most people come because they need something," and some buy several items, says Pare Gosselin, whose store features fashion by Quebec and Canadian designers.

To enhance safety, Pare Gosselin limits the number of customers allowed in the store and asks them to wash their hands on arrival. Clothes that are tried on and not purchased are steam-cleaned and set aside for 24 hours before being returned to the shelves.

Even though the masks she's ordered for herself and her staff haven't arrived yet, she says both staff and customers have been careful, and "nobody feels in danger."

While she expects the summer to be slow due to the cancellation of local festivals , which bring traffic, and weddings, which call for fancy dresses, she says things are much better than they were during the closure, when she could only sell online.

"Overall, it's been positive," she said.

Stephane Drouin, the general manager of an association representing more than 5,000 retailers in the province, says Pare Gosselin's experience has been fairly typical.

He says most retailers are experiencing only 30 to 50 per cent of their normal customer traffic, but sales per customer are generally higher because "everyone who comes, comes to buy," he said in a phone interview.

He said that most businesses are making between 50 and 75 per cent of their normal sales, but some are harder hit.

Big chains seem to be suffering the most, he said, because many of their locations are in shopping malls and they have not been allowed to reopen since they don't have a door to the outside. Clothing stores are also having a hard time, and restaurants and bars remain closed.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, meanwhile, has estimated that half of small businesses are not able to pay June rent without further help from government and has called for rent relief and expanded access to government aid programs.

But while the environment is challenging, not all businesses are suffering.

Drouin says some retailers including garden centres, hardware stores and those selling outdoor equipment and running shoes have seen an increase in sales.

Bicycles in particular are having a moment during the pandemic, says Nicholas Mathieu, who runs Le Pied Sportif in Magog, southwest of Sherbrooke.

He said sales have been "exponential," to the point where suppliers are beginning to struggle to meet demand, especially for electric bicycles and more affordable models for kids and families, who are looking for activities they can do close to home.

"Everyone wants to get outside, everyone wants to move," said Mathieu, who said some of the bigger sellers have reported a doubling in sales.

He expects the numbers to get even better now that the province has allowed provincial parks to open and is anticipating a surge in demand for mountain bikes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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