Pandemic lockdowns have forced many retailers to scale back operations, but COVID-19 is keeping Johanna Galipeau busy.
From the moment she wakes up in the morning, Galipeau powers through 12-hour days to keep Sweet Pea Boutique, her Queen Street women’s clothing store, afloat. That includes taking photographs of stock to post online, shooting videos of virtual fitting rooms for Instagram, and going to the store to pack up purchases for mail, curbside pickup, and local delivery.
“Once I finish with my pickup time at the store, I hit the road with my partner, and we just drive all over the city delivering orders,” Galipeau says. “It’s day after day, and we joke that it’s a very Groundhog Day. We do the same thing every day: go home, make dinner, go to sleep, wake up, and repeat.”
Sweet Pea Boutique recently celebrated its 14th birthday. In 2007, Galipeau, who was then 19, was at a crossroads. After attending both Mount Allison and Saint Mary’s University for a year, she didn’t want to continue those studies, but she didn’t have a clear path ahead.
While working two other jobs, Galipeau found her passion for retail and customer service.
“It was also a time when dresses weren’t a trend yet,” she recalls. “People were still wearing jeans. I loved wearing dresses, and I couldn’t find any anywhere except for those more high-end expensive boutiques. I was like, ‘why can’t we get affordable dresses that feel high-end that aren’t super expensive?'”
She decided to leave university, and with the help of her parents, she took out a loan and opened her small business. She credits the combination of a diverse local community and her passion for the store’s success these past 14 years.
“I always loved customer service,” she says. “It is crazy how much that got magnified in the last year being closed from the pandemic,. I sell dresses, but … I love helping people. I love helping them find the perfect dress, I love helping them walk away from that not-so-perfect dress. I’m so lucky that I have such a great community around me that I get to talk to every day. It’s my favourite thing, it’s the best, and I have such a wide variety of customers that shop with me, so every day is so different.”
For the past 14 months, the pandemic has brought on many challenges. The work of keeping the story running during the lockdown, whether she’s in the store at her computer, is continuous.
“I don’t want to complain because we’re super fortunate with just where we live and how supportive the community is,” she says. “I am still standing, over a year later, but it’s been a lot. It’s taken every brain cell just to pivot, keep going, not take the foot off the gas pedal and keep my momentum going daily.”
Sue Uteck, the executive director of Spring Garden Area Business Association, says many small-business owners are stretched thin.
“Quite simply, they have worked their asses off,” Uteck says. “Business owners … [are] having to work seven days a week, 15 to 16 hours a day. They’re struggling to find a supply chain.”
Many small retailers don’t qualify for many government grants and funding available to help them power through the pandemic, and the support is a drop in the bucket for the ones that can get it.
“The current supports available from government … are not enough,” Uteck says. “For example, the Small Business Impact Grant needs to be increased: $5,000 isn’t going to cut it when your rent is $8,000. Because round three is so different, we know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but they need much more help.”
The Spring Garden Area Business Association has banded together with the 11 other business improvement districts to collectively lobby for changes in the supports business need at a critical time.
“They need to increase the small business impact grant,” Uteck says. “Instead of $5,000, we’re asking it to be moved to $10,000 … Retail has never been eligible for all the grants. For example, a property rebate program—retail has not been eligible for it. What would help us out is to curb the big-box stores. That’s a very unlevel playing field currently out there.” She refers to stores like Costco and Walmart selling non-essential products like patio furniture, while their locally opened competitors are closed.
Galipeau has been focusing on garnering business by adjusting to customers’ new needs. Typically, she’d be selling dresses for graduations, proms, and weddings at this time of year. With that primary summer source of revenue gone, she’s carrying more casualwear.
“I always have T-shirt dresses and fun little floral things you can put on with sneakers,” she says. “I am trying to get versatile pieces that people can throw on just to go for a walk around their neighbourhood—so cute, fun, easy stuff.”
Galipeau’s worked hard to build a strong online and social media presence, which is paying off during the pandemic.
“I’ve been here for so long … and I have that following,” she says. “It’s the community around me that has been with me for so long. They have stepped up to shop local. It’s just been so powerful.”