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The Struggle Is Real. How You Can Help. (Business in YMM)

Fort McMurray, Alberta (Canada)

Hi! I’m Nathalie, the owner of Absolute Serendipity and Inspirit Home - Benjamin Moore, two stores located in the downtown core of Fort McMurray.

I’ve had some thoughts lingering on my mind lately and this was originally just going to be a short post on my personal Facebook page. But, I've been wanting to start a blog for a very long time and over the last few days, those thoughts have grown. I needed to express them more in depth.

So. Here I am. My first blog entry and it’s not what you may expect. It sure isn’t what I expected my first blog post to be about! Don’t worry. There’s more to come… and some of it will be about paint ;)

Can I let you in on a little secret? Being a business owner can be lonely at times. You take everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) in your business VERY personally. You ask yourself “Is it me? Is it something I am doing or not doing?” You want to know what others are experiencing, but letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask and share your own struggles is scary and takes courage. This is me… gathering a little courage.

If you live in Fort McMurray, you can’t talk to anyone or scroll far on social media without the topic of our depressed economy coming up. Recent comments and opinions on local social media groups inspired me to write from a small business owner’s perspective. To touch on a few popular themes: local businesses closing, commercial rent costs, (not) shopping local, price, variety, how far the downtown core is from other residential areas, and the state of our downtown core.

To be clear, I am not, nor do I consider myself to be by any means, a business guru or economist. I’m just a small business owner hustling it in the middle of a unique, little city experiencing tough times.

I believe life is about balance and everything is connected, whether it’s obvious or not. I moved here in 2002. Like many others, I moved here for all the opportunities Fort McMurray had to offer. I worked at one of the oil sands plants for 12 years before I made the big (maybe crazy) decision to buy my first business. If you’ve been here awhile, you know that this city enjoyed a large economic boom for years. This created a bubble for us, where the demand and cost of everything was high. Employment rates were high. Overtime seemed unlimited and never ending. Employee accommodations and travel expenses were fully paid. Life. Was. Great.

A few bad political decisions, combined with dropping prices of oil, lay offs, pay cuts, and a devastating forest fire through our city, have contributed to popping that proverbial bubble.

Things are not “normal” for us now. Reality is, compared to the average Canadian city, things were not normal before. Many of us bought property, residential or commercial, during that boom. Now, we struggle to sustain business and life under a different climate. Lots of small local businesses and even some larger ones have been forced to close their door. Seems like we hear of a couple new businesses closing every week lately. It’s scary for the general public and it’s scary for business owners. We ALL feel the pressure. We ALL have less disposable income. I see customers making much more educated decisions about what they are buying and average sales have gone down. Everyone is concerned and asking “what is being done to help the local economy?”

A sensitive topic is the cost of commercial rent. Economic conditions have changed and a vast majority of the community agrees commercial rent should go down accordingly. While I agree commercial rent costs in Fort McMurray are a challenge, dropping rent costs DO NOT increase sales.

Those commercial landlords are people, too. Hard working people. Business owners who, like many of us, invested in property at high prices. Their properties have gone down in market value more than our homes have. However, their business loans and expenses have not changed.

Consider this: Let’s say one of my landlords decides to give me a break on rent. Something else will have to be sacrificed in order to make up for the loss in rental income. Perhaps the landlord can no longer afford building maintenance. Maintaining the exterior and common use areas may have included hiring someone to paint on a regular basis. Subsequently, painters get less work and as a result, buy less paint.


See how it comes full circle? What was meant to help me as a small business owner, actually may hurt me. This is a very simplistic example, but that’s how it works.

With the ability to get anything you want online, there is also a lot of propaganda encouraging us to shop local. And not just in our region. Yes, shopping online comes with conveniences and perks. But shopping online will never replace that experience you get when you first enter a neat little shop with cool vibes. The scents. The feeling. The ability to see and touch items. The human interaction. The service, etc… Amazon and Costco DO NOT sponsor our kids’ sports teams, donate to local charity, or make our community vibrant and full of character.

Before you decide to order online, please take a couple seconds to do a Google search. You never know what you could find in town. You may also be surprised to find that we may be able to bring it in if you ask us. As small business owners, we are so busy hustling and really can’t afford to pay for big market studies. So, while we can’t possibly know everything the customer may need or want, before dismissing us, ASK. Ask us! If it is feasible and viable, I think I can safely say most businesses would gladly try to bring it in for you. Just ask.

Another fun topic is the price of things in town. Many (mistakenly) presume they pay a ton more if they buy items in town. Again, I ask you to take a few seconds to research and compare. I can’t speak for every other business in town, but I assure you, most of our prices are the same as, or even lower than, in other small towns in Canada. Meanwhile, the cost of getting merchandise up here is often 25% more than getting the same item delivered to any other city. That means the business owner is giving up a percentage of his/her potential profit to offer competitive pricing in order to retain customer and attract more sales.

“Oh, but there is more variety and it’s cheaper in Edmonton,” you say? With enough patronage from our community, any one of us small stores could bring in a lot more merchandise and offer more services. But these things all cost money. It’s not because we don’t want to or don’t think to do it. Trust me. As an owner, getting new merchandise for your store is more exciting than Christmas is for a child! Is stock low at times? Yep. But give us a chance to bring it in for you. Overtime we will have good inventory and flow.

Maybe some items ARE 10-20% more at a local store. That slight price difference may be necessary in order to keep business viable and cover the landing cost on said item. But you decide to drive down the highway to get it instead. The cost of gas, food and perhaps an overnight stay, will far exceed the amount you think you are saving. And since your money didn’t go into the small local business, they can’t bring in more stock. Sales go down during challenging economic times, but the cost of running a business does not.

Bottom line - If you can afford to shop in Edmonton, you can afford to shop local.

The distance to downtown shopping from the hills seems to be another common deterrent. “I don’t want to go all the way downtown” or “I don’t want to have to cross the bridge” - we’ve all seen the comments. I don’t understand this one very much. Our city is relatively small, both in area and population. Have you ever tried to get to downtown Calgary from the outskirts during business hours? Darn near impossible!

But, if distance is truly an issue, many small businesses have websites and offer local delivery. Even the ones without a website wouldn’t mind a phone call, I’m sure. Hell, they would probably be happy to deliver, too!

If we all made more of an effort to go downtown, it would help keep those businesses open and revitalize the downtown core with less vacant commercial space and neglected buildings. There are other concerns with downtown, but those should be addressed by the Municipal Government and that’s another large topic for another time.

I’m not telling you to never shop online or out of town or not to make smart consumer decisions. I’m just asking you to think about how you can help contribute to making our small local economy healthier and stronger. Come into our little stores for a peek. Come meet us and see what we have to offer. Make a conscious effort to support us. Small business owners invest everything they have into their business and community. We put a lot on the line to share a passion or to serve our community. After that, it becomes a collaboration between the businesses and the community to keep the cycle running.

Between my two stores, I employ 11 fantastic ladies who each bring a different combination of talents, skill sets, and experiences to the table. One of my stores provides a space for over 20 work-at-home moms and artisans within the region to showcase and sell their creations. You may think that’s a small contribution to our community, but I’m just one, tiny part of the equation! Think of all local businesses and what they add to our community and this region. If we all closed, it wouldn’t be good for any of us.

We can only hope pipelines, politics and other economic factors start setting our economy on an upward trend. In the meantime, we all need to hang on and survive.

Thanks for letting me share with you.


Photo Credit: Mark Blinch/Reuters. The 2016 wildfire glow underneath The Northern Lights in Fort McMurray.

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