Business owner calls for level playing field in retail

·4 min read

Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but when local business owner Mike Rathke walked into a pharmacy a couple of weeks ago and saw three women standing together spritzing perfume into the air to find their perfect scent, he saw red.

He wasn’t averse to the perfume, nor was his primary concern the fact they weren’t practicing social distancing. Rather, it was the fact he lost a sale just a few hours before due to COVID-19 protocols and other, larger, businesses were carrying on almost…well, almost business as usual.

It was frustration; frustration over the simple reality that “big box” stores are allowed to operate while small retailers like him have had to close their doors.

It is not a new concern. It was a reality most small businesses navigated through the first wave. But their concerns are the same. There is a playing field that needs to be levelled and it needs to be levelled to ensure the survival of small businesses across all sectors.

“The funny thing is at the beginning of December, sales were awesome for me. It was almost like normal business. Then, of course, we had the shutdown and I lost everything I was doing so well on,” says Mr. Rathke, owner of MR Menswear, a clothing store located on Yonge Street at Church Street. “It is a store that the traffic flow, even at Christmastime, the max would be a total of four people plus myself. It is a store that is a destination, not like one of those big shopping mall stores. Of course, in January, we haven’t been open, and [the shutdown] has been extended to February 11, and it is frustrating to see the amount of people in these big stores and all within a couple of feet of each other when people coming in here could have the whole store to themselves.”

Before he made that fateful trip to the pharmacy, he received a call from a customer who was looking to get a pair of dress pants received over the holidays adjusted for size. Due to COVID-related restrictions, Mr. Rathke was, of course, unable to welcome the customer into the store. They arranged instead for him to bring in a pair of fitted pants to the store, hand it off through the window of his car, and be on his way.

But the customer also needed a few pairs of pants and a couple of new shirts for his wardrobe.

“I said, ‘Great, but the only thing is I will have to bring them out to your car and show you what is available,’” recalls Mr. Rathke, noting that after a moment’s hesitation the customer agreed to the setup. “By the time I got out to his car, it had started with a bit of snow and freezing rain and it was uncomfortable for him. He said, ‘I’ll just deal with the Christmas gift and when you re-open I will add to the wardrobe then.’ I lost a sale. He would have been the only person in here.

“Then, I go to the pharmacy and there all three of them were, plus the rep, all within four feet. Here I lose a sale and they’re allowed to do that.”

Despite a loyal and passionate customer base, that can only sustain a business for so long in the middle of a pandemic when coming in to shop and spend money is all but impossible. Mr. Rathke said without government support to businesses like his, he would have had to shut his doors permanently in the fall.

“Formal clothing is not a necessity right now,” he says. “No one is wearing suits [working from home] and that is not selling because everyone is wearing loungewear, sweatpants, jeans, t-shirts, and that sort of thing. People are saying, ‘Hang in there!’ but I would be shutting down if it wasn’t for the Government’s assistance. There is no way I could have made it.”

If only the government would step up and say small businesses can re-open with a limited number of people, he adds.

“I can’t thank my customers enough. I am in a lot better shape than a lot of people and that is thanks to me being one of the only men’s clothing stores [in Aurora]. I had customers coming in in October and November not in need of anything, but just to support me, keep me up, and keep me open. I am thrilled and fortunate and I can’t thank this Town enough. I am fortunate to have that backup from the Government, but, at the same time, I just want to open up and speak to human beings again instead of my mannequins!”

Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran