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“Enough is Enough”: Corporations in Calgary are struggling, some are forever near

It’s been her life for decades and like so many retailers, 2020 was an epic battle.

Susan Copley tears up before explaining why she has decided to close her business for good. She wipes away her tears and apologizes for getting emotional.

Copley, who started working at Galleria Inglewood 39 years ago, says the decision to graduate was difficult, but it was also an easy one.

“It just gets to the point where you have to say, ‘enough is enough,'” said Copley.

Copley started working at the gallery in 1982 when it was still in Kensington. She and her husband bought the company in 2005 and moved to Inglewood. The Galleria Inglewood is essentially a consignment shop for artists selling ceramics, paintings, wood carvings, quilts, jewelry, and thousands of other items.

In September, Copley will finally close the doors.

Business started slowing down five years ago and has not recovered. She thought COVID-19 was the ultimate blow, but part of the showroom was flooded after a devastating storm rolled through Calgary on June 13th.

“I felt like COVID was the last straw and then Mother Nature said ‘no, I have another one for you.'”

Susan Copley, owner of Galleria Inglewood, says she will close the longtime Calgary store in September. She says declining sales, a tough economic climate and COVID-19 were factors in her decision. (Bryan Labby / CBC)

Retailers across the province have been hard hit this year. Sales have fallen by a staggering $ 2 billion since March – that’s around 30 percent. While sales in some companies are slowly picking up as the economy reopens, it will be a long road of uncertainty.

Will customers return? How long does the recovery take? If ecommerce is the future, can businesses spin fast enough to survive? Which programs or guidelines help? Will empty shop windows find new tenants?

The Alberta Business Council says there is too much uncertainty to answer these questions.

“I think it’s inevitable that we’ll see some pretty significant losses over the next few months,” said Mike Holden, chief economist and vice president of policy on the council.

He recently returned to his downtown office and saw the collateral damage from the pandemic nearby.

“A lot of the smaller stores and shops and storefronts are closed and closed. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s depressing to walk around,” he said.

“The real problem here, too, is that we don’t know how all of this will ultimately play out.”

It’s the same situation along 17th Avenue SW in Calgary. The retail and restaurant strip has numerous storefronts that have been emptied and the windows papered. It’s a mix of local and national chain stores that are closed.

A man walks past one of the empty storefronts along 17th Avenue SW in Calgary. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a 30 percent decline in retail sales in Alberta. (Bryan Labby / CBC)

The Retail Council of Canada predicts that at least 15 percent of brick and mortar stores will not survive the pandemic, but the number in Alberta could actually be higher.

“Alberta retailers and restaurants are facing a much greater challenge,” said Diane Brisebois, president and chief executive officer of the council.

She says retailers in Alberta have already been hurt because of the recession and falling oil prices.

According to Brisebois, it will be very difficult for retailers with a weak or nonexistent e-commerce presence to survive.

“Unless things are obviously changing for the better very quickly,” she said.

She says businesses need to quickly develop a seamless shopping experience, either in-store, online, or both.

“That means you have to have a very robust website with a good range that is easy to use, and you have to have a new exciting business. The stores are going to be very experienced now.”

The Retail Council of Canada is also calling on the federal government to improve its rent relief program for small businesses affected by the pandemic.

She says the current program (Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance) is not working because it depends on landlords to apply for a program that will cut rent by 25 percent. She says it needs to be changed so retailers can benefit from it.

“If this doesn’t happen very quickly, we believe the number of bankruptcies will increase significantly over the next three to six months.”

The Alberta Business Council says this is a factor that is hurting retailers.

“Because of this, I think we are not seeing as many landlords taking up this program as you might expect,” said Holden.

Susan Copley knows this all too well. She doesn’t think her landlord applied for the program, which could have cut her rent by 75 percent.

“So the rent is still due. But if you’ve been closed for three months I don’t know where you’re getting the money from,” she said.

It’s not certain that the rent relief program could have prevented their decision to close, but it didn’t help.

She turns 70 this year and says she no longer has the passion or drive to keep going – even as a pure online retailer.

“People like to take a mug, they like to feel a quilt, they like to see things and, you know, step back and look at them and treat them. And you can’t do that on Amazon.”

The store features work by 750 artists from across Canada, and Copley says it will be difficult to see those relationships end.

“I have a personal relationship with every single person who supplies this place. I know them all by name. I’ve known them for years. And I’ll miss them,” said Copley, holding back tears.

One such artist is Marilyn Settles, who has been a Calgary potter for 45 years. Her work is sold in two Calgary locations, including Galleria Inglewood. She is devastated, the store is about to close and she will lose one of her places of sale.

Marilyn Settles is a longtime Calgary potter whose work has been sold at the Galleria Inglewood for years. She says losing the business will hurt artists who relied on the retail floor to sell their wares. (Bryan Labby / CBC)

“It’s crushing, it’s nerve-wracking,” she said.

“The store allowed me to have my own home, raise two kids and raise them well, and I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Settles said.

Copley says she has started tagging some of the pieces in her huge collection and will stay open for a few more months before she finally closes the store in September.

Bryan Labby is a corporate reporter at CBC Calgary. If you have a good idea or tip for a story, you can reach them at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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