Orillia’s small-business owners have had to get creative — tweaking their hours, taking on second jobs, operating in shared spaces — to keep the doors open in the face of challenges thrown at them the past few years.
Many continue adapting as they struggle to cope with the impacts of inflation, shipping delays and staff shortages.
Wendy Timpano, general manager at the Orillia Area Community Development Corp. (CDC), which helps businesses with counselling, funding, and training, says staff shortages rank among the biggest challenges for small businesses.
“Employers are faced with the challenge of trying to recruit and retain, and they’re having to become incredibly creative with how they actually do that.”
While shortages can, in part, be attributed to the uncertainty businesses faced through COVID, Timpano says it may not be the main reason.
“I think one of the bigger challenges is simply that there are more people leaving the workforce than there are entering,” she said.
According to the 2021 census, Simcoe county’s largest demographic — at 19.9 per cent — are people 65 and older, typically the age of retirement.
As with many business challenges, staff shortages not only strain owners, they also push them to find creative solutions.
“You’re seeing a lot of owner-operators busier, but we’re also seeing owners change the way they’re doing business; changing their hours, doing things a little bit differently, and getting creative in terms of how they can continue to operate with a reduced staffing complement,” Timpano said.
Not all businesses rely heavily on employees to provide products and services.
Brendan Fitzpatrick, owner of a downtown games store called fanboy, has been in business for six years and runs the shop largely by himself, using just one employee to fill in as needed.
“The thing in business is trying to keep your overhead as low as possible. We’re doing this because it’s something we enjoy,” he said.
While staffing isn’t an issue for him, Fitzpatrick says shipping can be, particularl“We used to be OK up to about a week or two before Christmas where you could hop on, find something and get it shipped to you without issue. Now, I mean, if you’re a month off, if you haven’t already ordered it by this point, getting it is getting questionable every day that passes,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said this isn’t all bad news.
Rather than risk shipping delays with online shopping, some customers are heading downtown to browse and purchase products in person.
Rocky Rajan, owner of We Fix Mobiles, used to own a mobile repair shop with a partner in West Ridge. The COVID-19 pandemic and rising rent caused him to close the doors and return to his profession in the medical industry.
Now he’s back in business, sharing space with another downtown retailer, A Liquidators Inc.
Rajan repairs mobile devices at a table next to a wall of phone cases.
Sales have been slow, but he makes it work by picking up night shifts at his other job. He doesn’t want to give up either source of income.
Asked if it was a lot to handle, he smiled and said he can make it work for now.
Carol Benedetti, community development co-ordinator at the Orillia Area CDC, says there’s a tremendous amount of optimism among local businesses.
“We talk to business owners, and they are looking at ways to innovate. They’re looking at things that they can do and things they can invest in to grow their business in ways that perhaps they hadn’t thought of before. There’s a tremendous amount of optimism and determination.”
Fitzpatrick reflects this optimism, particularly with Christmas fast approaching.
“We always look forward to Christmas. It’s a little bump,” he said. “We usually see two times a year that sort of increase. During the summer months, when we get a lot of the tourists up — the other big bump for us is always Christmas.”
Timpano says with inflation and talk of a recession, it’s more important than ever to support local retailers.
Fitzpatrick enthusiastically echoes that sentiment.
“Shop local. Support local. Make those independent businesses — business owners — dance their jigs with excitement and happiness.”
By: Cole T. Bennett