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Lifeblood of the Community: The Importance of Buying Local

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Noella Andres Crop
Noella Andres of the Community General Store in Niverville. Noella Andres

Eerily similar to the lengthy health challenges endured by COVID long-haulers, many businesses are also realizing that keeping their doors open will be… well, a long haul.

Throughout the pandemic, businesses have had to withstand lockdowns, changing restrictions, staffing issues, and supply issues, just to name a few.

While lockdowns have lifted and financial relief benefits and loans helped, many challenges remain. And new challenges are emerging, such as high interest rates and fresh supply challenges given the flooding disaster in British Columbia.

Support Local

Leading local businesses through the pandemic has been the Niverville Chamber of Commerce, offering a network of support.

According to executive director Brenda Desjardins, things are by no means back to normal.

“Some industries are doing well, but many industries have suffered losses that will take time to recoup from,” Desjardins says. “Restrictions are lighter than they have been previously, but there are still many hurdles for businesses from new protocols, to staffing issues, to supply chain delays and cost increases.”

Overall, the long-term goal of businesses is to stabilize and return to growth. The Chamber of Commerce says this will be a theme for their next planning session. They’re seeking to encourage growth and recovery from the economic consequences of the pandemic.

“COVID has really emphasized the importance of business agility, the ability to adapt efficiently and effectively to changing environments, and the Chamber is working to incorporate this concept in our recovery plan,” says Desjardins. “We understand that our membership needs a Chamber that is continuously analyzing economic changes so that we can be prepared to support our businesses when they need us. This will be a major topic of our strategic planning session in early 2022. In the meantime, we have already started exploring events for the new year that will focus on business education and networking opportunities.”

In the short-term, businesses are very much focusing on the now—and that means Christmas marketing. In that regard, Desjardins has a clear message about what it means to support local.

“For the past 18 months, we’ve seen businesses exhaust every avenue available to them to try to generate business,” she says. “As a Chamber, we’ve been trying to support these efforts through grants, programming, and connecting businesses with resources. However, at the end of the day it just comes down to where people in the community decide to spend their money. So our message this holiday season isn’t really directed at businesses. They’re already doing everything they can. Instead we’d like to encourage our community to support local. Think about the businesses that you appreciate having in your community and show them some love this holiday season.”

Last Christmas, the push to support local made a real, tangible difference to the livelihood of many local business owners. To say it helped businesses survive is no understatement.

The Community General Store at 10 Cedar Drive in Niverville is one business hoping to receive some of the same level of support it saw during the last holiday season.

“That is the best thing that came out of COVID, the focus on buying local,” says Noella Andres, owner of the Community General Store. “The bottom line is that COVID did drastically increase the need to support local. Businesses put out the ask to support local and people heard us. Then they repeated it to each other, and people responded and came out. They supported local and carried businesses like never before. The shutdowns, even as much as I hated it, went okay for us because everybody supported local.”

Peggy Wiebe from the Little Flower Shop on Prefontaine Road says she received a lot of support during the worst of the COVID lockdowns.

“I have not slowed down. I have not stopped,” says Wiebe. “We did see delays in that weddings, specialties, rentals, yes, had moved from 2020 to 21 or 22 or 23 and beyond. But because people couldn’t have big weddings, we’ve done a lot of micro-weddings where people still want the flowers and a bouquet. The bride is still wearing the dress and the couple still wants some centrepieces and backdrops and all that. And this year came and now we’ve done some receptions. It’s been hectic, with calming the brides down and letting them know we’re all trying to work this out. Our floral end of it has not stopped. I’m busy.”

Businesses that still need to reduce capacity continue to be hobbled, but Wiebe says that she can tell people are starting to go out more.

“People are starting to go out more and get together more—and because they can do that, they are starting to spend more again, especially in my industry,” Wiebe says. “They’re trying to add some brightness and cheerfulness into people’s lives, and nothing says it more than flowers. They’re across the board always a good gift. With celebrations, with sympathy, they’re there to cheer you.”

Like Andres, this Christmas Wiebe appreciates her customers immensely and is hoping for the same show of local support they had last year.

“I love this area,” she says. “We noticed last Christmas we could barely keep up. The support was overwhelming. We love it. We need it. These small businesses are the lifeblood of the community.”

Local Challenges

Andres says the local support has been revolutionary, but there are other challenges that her business is trying to overcome.

“Oh, it’s not over,” Andres says. “In fact, I think it’s actually getting a little worse now because of supply issues. With retail, I’m ordering things and they’re being put on back order and I might not get them for a year or a year and a half. Like, I’m getting things that I ordered last Christmas and we’re only getting them this Christmas. Throw in a B.C. flood and we just found out a lot of our Christmas greens aren’t going to make it in time. They’re stuck on a semi somewhere.”

Supply and demand is a real challenge that the public may not be entirely grasping yet, even as the consequences are being felt in markets all across Canada.

Buying local was the consumer’s solution to supply issues for a while, but now even buying Manitoba-made or Canadian products will be more difficult.

“The media has been saying it and we’ve been saying it over and over, but I don’t think the public understands,” says Andres. “This impacts us and so it will impact you, but it’s beyond our control. This Christmas, it will be more difficult than ever, even to buy local, though the local businesses and artisans really need your support. For example, getting yarn for macramé or clay for pottery, this is getting really difficult. Because my business is mostly local handmade products, we are noticing this is the situation facing a lot of our makers. Of course, I’m going to always say support local, but I don’t think people understand that the demand is affecting the crafter who is selling at the markets or making in their home. They’re struggling to get the materials they need to make their product.”

Other continuing challenges include finding and keeping staff, and beginning to make loan repayments when businesses haven’t yet fully recovered.

“A lot of businesses took advantage of the CEBA [Canada Emergency Business Account] loan, and it’s going to come due,” Andres adds. “But COVID hasn’t gone away. People intended to rebound their business, and they haven’t been able to do that. If they needed that [loan] to begin with, they took it and were hoping COVID would go away, but it hasn’t. So if a business took that loan and it’s due, we will see more doors close.”

Wiebe from the Little Flower Shop has a similar struggle to Andres when it comes to trying to get critical supplies from British Columbia.

“I get 90 percent of my product from B.C.,” says Wiebe. “Business recovery? We’ll see what recovery looks like after what’s happened in B.C. Prices are going to go up and they’re going to go up high.”

Wiebe also says she will need to continue to be creative. But sustaining the flow of new ideas is always a challenge.

“It’s hard to know where to turn to for the next new thing to draw people in,” says Wiebe. “We were doing lots of fresh flowers and then we weren’t; we were doing more plants. We were doing outdoor planters for businesses. We were doing interior décor for interior designers and showrooms for new builds. Some industries went bangbuster, and others didn’t pivot fast enough, or couldn’t.”

Wiebe acknowledges that many other businesses haven’t been as fortunate as her flower shop, point out that any place you had to physically go to for services inevitably struggled more than a shop where you could still go to pick up goods.

“Who is struggling? Restaurants, gyms, for sure, any place you have to go to for service,” Wiebe says. “For me, you don’t have to come here. You can book online and just pick up.”

Business Strategy

Andres, who also owns a marketing agency as well as the Community General Store, says that a business’s ability to cultivate an online presence is key to both hanging in there and making a plan for successful recovery.

We all saw the safety and convenience of online shopping skyrocket during the pandemic.

“I have that marketing background and I deal with a lot of online business, so I knew it was important to have that going into business today,” says Andres. “That’s probably what got us through COVID. I had my online store up before our physical doors open. We were doing online orders and pickup like crazy last year. If we hadn’t had that, we wouldn’t have survived COVID. And we are still doing online orders and pickups. Businesses need to have the online purchasing portal these days.”

E-commerce giants like Amazon exemplify how important online shopping is. Andres says that Amazon is so profitable because of both how easy it is to use and how recognizable they are.

“Online shopping has to be easy. And with Amazon, it’s so easy. Everyone knows the name Amazon and knows it is for online shopping where you can find anything,” she says. “But that same power is not afforded the small businesses, even if they are now set up with online shopping as well. For us, it’s not easy if you don’t have brand recognition.”

Businesses should also do everything they can to continue to encourage supporting local. While this means spreading the buy local message to your immediate community, she also says that businesses will need to continue to find new customers.

“For us, the challenge is trying to bring in new business, new customers,” says Andres. “We need to attract traffic from other small communities, and that’s a big challenge. Saturdays is almost exclusively Winnipeg traffic, and I know we’re bringing in new business. We’ll be chatting and I’ll find out they’re not from in town and then we are always telling people, go check out MCC, go check out Negash Coffee, and our other great places.”

The biggest challenge comes back to the issue of brand recognition or just having people simply know you exist. Andres says out-of-towners just don’t know about Niverville, and locals don’t always know about the shopping opportunities here.

She says she’ll be planning to offer a coupon in the Niverville Chamber’s welcome package so that new residents will know about her business.

For Wiebe at the Little Flower Shop, she says that staying focused is one of the best things business owners can do right now. Even though your business must change to survive, the focus of your purpose should remain the same.

“For me, my marketing plan has always been the same: stay focused, stay on top of digital, advertise where I can,” Wiebe says. “Take care of customers, because word of mouth is most effective. I take care of 16 communities here and I’ve been doing it for 32 years. What comes, comes. I make honest claims. I’m not going to make claims that I have the best flowers. I sound more laidback than that on purpose. I don’t push people when they’re in a tight position. I’m here and I do what I do.”

Networking is another tool Wiebe hasn’t been shy about.

“People, especially in southeast Manitoba, are so willing to help with what you need,” says Wiebe. “I try to donate where I can and I participate in community groups. Network with local groups, not-for-profits, where and when you can. When I need business, I try to connect where I can. I do some good and good comes back to me. I have networked with real estate agents to do show rooms, the Steinbach Arts Council, and more. I reach out.”

Wiebe also notes that the best way to network is to be honest and ask for what you need.

“We’re all dealing with a lot of stuff and we forget how connected we are,” she says. “If you’re talking around and saying you’re doing great and you’re actually not, it’s not going to help anyone. Let’s talk and let’s be honest. Ask the right kind of questions for the right help that you need. Other businesspeople can direct you to the right suppliers, and show you a new idea or a new way to do things. That’s friendly competition. We shore each other up.”

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