By David Sali –
When Faustina Konkal and her mother Catherine Fournier bought Hintonburg fabric shop and sewing studio Fabrications more than two years ago, the business seemed like, well, the perfect fit.
Konkal, a mom of three who learned to sew when she was a kid, had a background in retail. Fournier, meanwhile, had run her own freelance writing business for years and knew her way around a balance sheet. “Our skills intersect,” as Fournier puts it.
So when original owners Carrie Alexander and Curtis Blondin decided to sell the Wellington Street store in early 2017, a mother-daughter partnership was born.
“We thought there was a lot of potential in the business, so we decided to take the plunge,” Konkal says.
At first, their faith seemed justified. Sales nearly doubled the second year they owned the 1,300-square-foot shop, but this year has been a “little flatter,” Konkal notes.
With their lease set to expire at the end of August this year, they decided it was time to pull up stakes and relocate to less expensive retail space.
“Even though we doubled our sales in two years, the rent here is still just barely affordable,” Konkal says, pegging the current rent on Wellington at about $5,800 a month.
“We felt that we had kind of squeezed all the retail value out of the square footage. We didn’t think that we could increase sales any more in this location, so we started looking around.”
In the end, they found a vacancy in a strip mall at 1677 Carling Ave. on the eastern edge of Westboro. The new store is 1,900 square feet, giving them more room for retail and office space. The mall’s 80-car lot means parking will never be an issue. The total monthly rent bill will be slightly higher than they’re currently paying, but they expect to save on utility costs in a newer, more energy-efficient building.
“The business was on a growth path, but was reaching limits to how much we could cram into here and still maintain the atmosphere that we wanted,” Fournier says. “We needed more space.”
Konkal and Fournier aren’t alone among local retailers who’ve had to face the tough choice of whether to remain in areas such as Hintonburg, Wellington West and Westboro and pay rising rents or move on.
Retail experts say owning a small business on a traditional “mainstreet” strip such as Wellington Street is becoming a tougher gig every year. While rents continue to go up as neighbourhoods become more gentrified and expenses such as hydro keep rising, competition from big-box discount retailers such as Walmart and e-commerce juggernauts Amazon and the like is also ratcheting up.
At the same time, a number of new enterprises have sprung up on Wellington in the last few years, suggesting mainstreet businesses can still thrive if they find the right niche.
Half a block east of Fabrications on Wellington, Mostly Danish Furniture vacated its 3,500-square-foot space on Wellington Street in 2018 after three years in the neighbourhood.
Owner Zvi Gross says he hoped the Hintonburg specialty furniture store would help drive traffic to his much larger flagship location on Kaladar Avenue in the city’s south end, a plan that “worked quite well for us.”
But he says the landlord found a tenant who was willing to pay more for the space, and he’s since purchased his own building at 1619 Carling Ave., where he’s hoping to open a new store in the next few months.
The owners of Fabrications say the venture is profitable, and many other independent retailers in Hintonburg are thriving, says Barry Nabatian, a market researcher at Ottawa-based Shore-Tanner & Associates. But other smaller merchants, even in upscale neighbourhoods such as Westboro and the Glebe, aren’t faring as well, he adds.
“Many of these businesses are at the point of bankruptcy, and the reason they are still holding on is because they have invested so much money that they say, ‘Look, if I walk away now, I lose all of that. Maybe next year will be better,'” Nabatian says. “I can tell you that a lot of them, the owners are making less than minimum wage, which is very sad really.”
Traffic congestion and a lack of on-street parking are also major concerns for many retailers.
Konkal and Fournier say 85 per cent of people who responded to a recent online and in-store survey said they drove to the shop, while 40 per cent said traffic congestion was a deterrent to visiting the store. They say most of their customers come from outside Kitchissippi ward, and they felt they need to be at a location that’s easier to get to by car and has its own parking lot.
“We’re a small niche,” Konkal says. “We need to be accessible to the entire metropolitan area.”
Just east of Fabrications at the corner of Wellington and Irving Avenue, the owners of Les Moulins La Fayette say they couldn’t be happier with their choice of location.
Business has been brisk at the bakery and coffee shop since it opened just over a year ago, says co-owner Aditya Budhiraja. He and his partners looked at a number of locations in the ByWard Market, Glebe and New Edinburgh before deciding Hintonburg just felt right, he explains.
“The response from folks has been incredible,” Budhiraja says, estimating about 60 per cent of his customers reside in the immediate neighbourhood. “We rely heavily on foot traffic.”
A couple of kilometres away on Richmond Road, Sheba and Gordie Schmidt have built a thriving family-owned business selling children’s outdoor apparel at West End Kids.
The explosion of online commerce and the recent hike in the minimum wage have made the business climate tougher for small retailers than it was when they opened the store in 1995, they concede. And rent at their 1,300-square-foot location is now about $6,000 a month, five times what it was 24 years ago, Gordie notes.
But they’ve changed with the times, investing in a successful online store powered by local e-commerce giant Shopify–online sales now account for nearly a third of their revenues–while targeting a very niche market with few other major competitors. The Schmidts say they love the neighbourhood and plan to remain part of the Westboro retail scene for many years to come.
“I’m not moving,” Sheba says. “I think there is going to be a resurgence for brick-and-mortar–I really do. People like to shop. They like to look at things.”
Back at Fabrications, Konkal says she has mixed emotions about her pending move.
“It’s a great neighbourhood. I really enjoy it here,” she says. “But we’re also really excited about the new location. It’s bittersweet, for sure.”