“Any sale at this point is truly a gift”: How five Toronto stores are coping without foot traffic

“Any sale at this point is truly a gift”: How five Toronto stores are coping without foot traffic

The Covid-19 pandemic has uprooted every aspect of city life, including independent fashion and design stores, which were forced to shut down in March when they were deemed non-essential services. Many of these brick-and-mortar outposts—whose businesses once relied on heavy foot traffic—have dramatically shifted their strategies to online sales, food bank donations and PPE production. Toronto Life spoke to a few business owners about what they’re doing to survive.

Photo by Titus Chan

John and Juli Baker
Owners, Mjölk

John: “We’re still paying rent as normal, but it’s a challenging time. We invest so much energy in our physical showroom: it’s where our furniture is displayed with all of our materials and samples, and its atmosphere and aesthetic is our greatest asset when selling products. In a time of crisis, luxury goods are among the easiest things to hold off on purchasing. Many people’s interior projects have been put on hold, so we worry about cash flow and where our next order could be coming from. On the other hand, we hope people staying at home might want some comfortable and beautiful furniture to sit in. So any sale at this point is truly a gift. The pandemic has taken us to some stressful places, and at some point, we’ve wondered if we should even carry on with this business, or if it would be better to be online only. These are things that we would have never considered in the past. Fortunately, our online presence has been strengthened: we’ve been more active on social media, promoting specific things we are using at home in isolation, and we’re lucky that we invested in a web store 10 years ago. We’ve seen an increase in online sales of our smaller accessories in the GTA. Overall, we’re grateful for our staff. We can courier fabric or wood samples anywhere in the city, and with our small goods, we can ship internationally.”


Photo courtesy of Julie Yoo

Julie Yoo
Owner, I Miss You Vintage Inc.

“It’s hard to make informed, long-term business decisions when I don’t have a timeline. Ossington Avenue has always been a community hub with a strong character, and we’re proud to have been part of the original fabric of the street since we opened in 2005. Despite our temporary retail store closure, we have seen continued support for our products online from our loyal customer base. We’re fortunate that we had a strong e-commerce channel set up before this all happened, although you can’t get the neighbourhood feel from online shopping. People who are stuck indoors now have the time to dive into their closets and sort through unwanted items. So it’s an opportune time for everyone to turn their closets into cash. We are continuing to appraise and edit remotely, buy out and consign items. Overall business has drastically decreased, but we are fortunate to still have e-commerce to provide us with some revenue. In fact, we just consigned two Hermès bags today, including an exotic Birkin. We’re arranging curb-side pick-ups or drop-offs of vintage clothing, and the option to ship items in from consignors. For high-value consignments, we’re offering pre-paid shipping labels and postal pick-ups to make it convenient to get things to us.”


Taurean Scotland
Retail Area Manager, Peace Collective

“We had to look at the business in a completely different lens. The biggest challenge we faced was closing our retail stores, postponing product launches and shifting our strategy to exclusively online sales. However, there have been pros about this situation: this pandemic has surprisingly made us closer and stronger as a team. We have had to dig deep and really pull together to keep the momentum going as a brand. We’re also coming up with ideas that might not otherwise have happened or come to fruition like our meal campaign. As a brand, we knew it was our duty not only to help but to also engage our community to do the same. Last month, we launched the campaign to donate three meals for every garment sold and offer 20 per cent discounts to individuals who show us proof of their donations to their local food banks. The company has raised funds to supply over 5,000 meals to Canadians in need through partner food banks.”


Photo courtesy of Janet Han

Janet Han
Owner, Fashionably Yours

“We’re working from home, and adapting quickly to the needs of our customers as we continue to monitor this ever-changing situation. Ironically, we were in the middle of building a brand new store on Queen West and hiring staff when this all started. We were aiming to launch on May 1 in celebration of our 11-year anniversary. At the moment, we’re continuing to expand our web store and online presence by elevating and streamlining the overall consignment and shopping experience. In fact, we’ve observed a substantial increase in our online sales—perhaps because people are turning to retail therapy. Currently, we’re offering virtual contactless consignment appointments (via @shopfy and @shopfyman on Instagram) which means we are able to assess products via email, DM or FaceTime—and then have the items picked up via courier or shipped. We’ve also added a new category to our online store that includes affordable brands, which were previously only available in-store. We’re offering free shipping in North America over $100. Considering that we’re predominantly a brick-and-mortar store, we miss the daily face-to-face interactions with our customers. However, I know we can all survive this together, save our communities and the businesses that make up the heart and soul of our downtown core.”

Lorraine Sit and Chris Caira
Owners, The Maker Bean Cafe

Lorraine: “Since the pandemic, we’ve had to quickly reinvent ourselves—and we’re expecting our first child in June, which adds both excitement and anxiety to the mix. We had to shut down operations at our Ontario Science Centre location right before March Break, which was traditionally the busiest time of year for us. At our Bloorcourt outpost, we’ve moved to a takeout-and-delivery-only model. And to replace our kids’ camps and adult workshops, we created at-home maker kits that include all the parts to build a robot or catapult and a cross-stitch activity, with instructions for parents and kids to complete together. In addition to our regular clientele, we’ve observed an uptick in new requests from people who now have the opportunity to pursue creative projects they wouldn’t have otherwise had the time for. For example, we’ve helped customers design and 3-D print planetary systems to teach their kids at home. Unfortunately, the new at-home activity kits aren’t making up for any other kind of sales such as camps, workshops, and corporate events. We’re not turning a profit by a long shot. But we’re using the revenue we get from café sales, which would normally be going towards rent, utilities and insurance, to support our Covid-19 PPE production. We’re paying for all costs out of our own pocket, though that will only be sustainable for a short period of time. We’ve re-focused our fabrication resources like our 3-D printers and raw material such as plastic and wood to produce PPE like face shields, masks and ear savers for our heroic front-line medical and healthcare workers. We hope that at full production capacity, we’ll be able to produce over 200 face shields per week. This has spurred many of our new and regular customers to donate directly to production, either through regular café purchases, or direct donation through our gift card platform.”