Prudent planning helps merchants make it through winter
By Jenn Watt
For many of Haliburton’s downtown retailers, the winter season is a slower, at times stressful time of year, but one that can be weathered with careful planning and a dash of tenacity. The money earned in the summer needs to be managed to make it through the rest of the year, and inventory must be carefully curated to suit the much smaller pool of potential customers coming in from January to May.
But despite the challenges, retailers say they make it through the lean season thanks to loyal shoppers, a bit of belt tightening, and a love of what they do.
“Winter is something you get through ... it’s not going to change,” says Laurie Bonfield, owner of Country Pickin’s women’s clothing store. “You have to accept the season, work with the season. You can’t fight winter, it’s going to come in all shapes and forms. You deal with what’s happening in the season.”
Over her 37 years in business, Bonfield has fine-tuned her merchandise to suit the clientele in Haliburton. She stocks the boots with built-in ice grippers to cater to the local conditions and swimsuits and sandals for those planning to go south for a vacation.
“Right now we’re catering to the season with what people are actually doing and what they’re needing,” she said.
In summer, when the town is bustling, Country Pickin’s will have about seven employees, working mostly full-time hours. In winter, that drops to three working part-time hours, plus Bonfield.
She says the economy is in constant rotation – busy in summer, slow in winter – on repeat.
“What you do all summer basically is paying almost for your winter before,” she said.
At the Ethel Curry Gallery, owner Wayne Hooks also pares down for the winter, reducing the number of days open. In 2019, he made the decision to close for the month of February, opening only Saturdays. He said he intends to do that again this year.
“Our experience has been that February almost no one came in the gallery,” Hooks said. “I finally decided, and I hate to lay the staff off for a month, but you have to. I decided I had to.”
There are two employees at the gallery, which is celebrating 25 years in business, aside from Hooks.
It’s been suggested to him that the gallery could close for the winter, but he said he’s never considered it. “I think it’s partly because all we need is one customer to come up on a nice snowy weekend and buy an $8,000 painting and that makes that month all worthwhile, which we would have missed had we closed in the winter,” he said.
Hooks, who is a woodworker, sells his work along with that of another 100 artists at the gallery. Many of those artists are local and the vast majority of the paintings, stained glass, pottery and jewelry has a distinctly cottage country aesthetic. Over the last 25 years, sales have accounted for about $4 million. When a piece is sold, the artist gets a percentage and the gallery gets a percentage.
Hooks points out that his customer base is not the same as many of the retailers in downtown Haliburton, however when an art gallery does well, it is an indication that shoppers have more discretionary income available to them. His business was hit hard by the aftershocks of the 2008 recession and had a difficult 2018 year, but said 2019 was better.
“Overall last year, including the summer, for our gallery, we were up. ... This year, August/September/October turned out to be better than average. That raised our bottom line to better than the last few years, which was and still is encouraging.”
Home Hardware has also seen steady growth in sales and customers since Jerry and Dale Walker purchased the business in 2014, which motivated them to move forward with their new building on County Road 21.
“We’ve noticed a substantial increase in sales, a substantial increase in customer counts and average sales per customer,” said Dale Walker. “We’re very pleased and obviously that’s what kept us going to do the project that we did [to] move the store and increase the size and increase staffing and so on and so forth.”
Walker said she’s watched the village of Haliburton grow over the years, from the new grocery stores and drugstores to the addition of more boutique-style shops and attractive restaurants.
“The more we can offer the consumer to purchase here, the better it is for all of us. It keeps them in town shopping locally and then in turn our business, we support the community and we like to continue to support the community because the community supports us.”
Aside from a couple of staff members who go south in the winter, Home Hardware employs people year-round and Walker said they use the winter months as a time to get organized and prepare for the summer.
She said they use statistics on sales from previous years to decide what to stock, but it’s an imperfect science.
“It’s always a guessing game. [It] keeps us on our toes,” she said.
Daniel Manley, owner of Russell Red Records, said he’s been pleasantly surprised by shopping patterns in Haliburton. When he opened on Canada Day weekend alongside MixTape Vintage, owned by Heidi Hudspith, the plan was to close after Labour Day. But as September approached, things were going well enough to encourage them to keep going, deciding to continue until December.
“Our December was fantastic and nearly rivalled the summer months. We were really happy about that,” Manley said. So, they’ve stayed open and plan to continue year-round.
Manley said the success of the business is in part because of low staffing costs. Between Hudspith and Manley and a couple of their friends, they only need to employ someone one day a week. Manley said he’s also kept his day job.
“I kind of end up using the phrase that we’re a bit of a passion project and with some help from my friends … we’re keeping this open and seeing how it goes,” he said.
Winter is definitely slow, Manley said, but so far sales have been steady enough to justify staying open.
“I suppose we expected a bit more of a ghost town, but we have had some nice sales come through and that’s good enough, given our model, to pay the rent and order more product in,” he said.
At Ethel Curry Gallery, Hooks said he personally finds running the business fulfilling, which keeps him motivated to continue. He said he finds the work mentally stimulating and he enjoys getting the chance to interact with the artists, staff and customers.
Bonfield said she is similarly energized by the work she does.
“My staff and myself, we really like what we do. We like our customers, they’re almost like friends. We have a pretty loyal following. You get to know them and you get to buy for them. We have a lot of laughs. We hear a lot of stories. We’ve watched their kids grow up. Now their kids are coming and they’re adults now. It’s kind of like one big family,” she said.