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Downtown retailers enjoy a 'surge' of customers since reopening

'People are very positive, they are excited, and it’s really great to see,' says Plum Loco manager
Jason Harrison
Plum Loco employee Jason Harrison has been busy keeping up with the demand at the local clothing retailer since reopening last Friday.

Downtown Orillia streets have been bustling with shoppers since last Friday when the Ontario government moved the province into Step One of its reopening plan.

Clothing retailer Plum Loco is one of the many businesses that is trying to keep up with the demand.

“We’ve been very busy, more so than normal. It’s been really nice reconnecting with our customers after a long time away,” said Manager Debbie Lundnark.

“Everybody is ecstatic. The first thing they say when they walk in the door is ‘Thank God I can shop again.' People are very positive; they are excited, and it’s really great to see.”

Lundnark says some of the store’s shoppers are coming into the store for the first time in over a year.

“We have an older clientele, so some of these people coming out haven’t even been doing their own groceries,” she explained.

“People are buying everything. All us women just want to have new clothes and enjoy a bit of a shopping spree ... it’s been a while since that has been able to happen.”

While retail stores are open, they are only allowed to open at 15 percent of their capacity, which is just fine with Plum Loco staff and customers.

“For us it’s profitable and our customers like it because they can come in without having to worry about there being too many people in the store and then bumping into each other,” Lundnark said.

“I’m finding the environment is much more relaxed for my customers and they appreciate it. Customers are purchasing more because they are comfortable.”

Even when the province enters step two of the reopening plan, Lundnark is planning on keeping the 15 percent capacity limit in place for Plum Loco.  

“None of my staff have their second vaccine yet, so I need to protect them as well as myself,” she said.

“Once everyone has had their second vaccine and two weeks have gone by, then I’ll change it. But for right now I’m going to hold off until we are all double vaccinated.”

Lundnark isn’t worried about losing business to other clothing retailers who will be able to operate at a higher capacity in step two.

“It’s not worth taking any chances, the current protocols are working, so I’m going to do the same thing,” she said.

Plum Loco's reopening was relatively seemless thanks to a strategic plan that was created going into the province-wide stay-at-home order back in April.

“We prolonged all our shipments until last week, but we still have a good stock compared to other stores because we pre-planned for the lockdown good enough to put us in good shape,” Lundnark said.

“The government has helped us financially and, given what other people are going through, we are feeling pretty lucky.”

Alleycats Music & Art also enjoyed a strong reopening.  

“Things are going great, we feel sort of back to normal,” said owner Mike Rothwell

“It’s good to be back open, and of course we are looking forward to when we can completely open.”

The staff at Alleycats have been enjoying the positive energy that has been coming from downtown shoppers this week.

“A lot of people felt cooped up, so people are enjoying being able to go out and visit their favourite spots and have more interaction with people,” Rothwell said.

While people have been patiently waiting in lines all week to enter their favourite retailers, Rothwell says operating at just 15 percent capacity isn’t profitable in the long term.

“The business model is built on a large quantity of people being able to come into the store at one time, especially in the summer,” he said.

“Rent is expensive as is the insurance, all the costs of doing business are substantial, so we have to sell larger during certain periods of the year to offset our costs.”

Rothwell is looking forward to entering the second step of the province's reopening plan so he can welcome more customers inside his store. However, he is comfortable waiting until July 2, which is the current projected timeline for when non-essential retail stores can increase capacity to 25 per cent.

“I think Ontario is taking a sensible reopening strategy. Before they might have rushed things here and there, but now they are listening to the medical people and going by the numbers,” he said.

“We definitely support what’s happening now.”  

While being reopened over the last week has been a positive for Alleycats, there have been some challenges for the staff.

“I’ve joked that we’ve kind of forgot how to do retail and we have to learn how to do it again because it’s been a long time. To get back into the grove of things takes a couple of days,” Rothwell explained.

Coming out of a lockdown also means that Alleycats has more competition than ever before.  

“During the lockdown, more people discovered online outlets for things, so we want to make sure that we don’t lose customers to some of the other online options that people discovered while we were closed,” Rothwell said.

“People’s buying habits have changed. It’s become more of a conflict for retail stores, and our online channel is something we need to work on more.”

Up the street at Dr.Comics, there has been a ton of foot traffic through the store over the last week.

“We had a surge of customers last weekend; that’s when business was really good,” said owner Carmine De Santo

“Our customers are excited to be back, they love to hunt through the bins for comics, they like to look for toys ... it’s all been positive.”

De Santo says the busy week has helped the comic book shop recoup some of their lost revenue from the stay-at-home order.

“In my business, we couldn’t do curbside pickup, everybody wants to see the books, it’s a big factor where people want to actually come into the shop,” he explained.

“Being busy over the last week has helped make up for that a little bit," he said.

“It feels good to be able to interact again, a lot of people have questions about what’s going on in the comic book world, it’s been good catching up with everybody,” De Santo said.

De Santo says being open at 15 percent capacity is going "really well" but he is excited for the province to get to Step Two of reopening so more downtown businesses like personal care services can open and create even more foot traffic.

“The quicker we open all businesses the better it is for everyone,” he said.

The biggest challenge over the next couple of weeks is selling off some of their overstock from going months without any transactions, he explained.

“We have a lot of new comic book releases that we’ve had to hold over the lockdown, but they’ve been selling fairly well over this last week,” De Santo said.

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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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