Grocery store shelves bereft of toilet paper, hand soap, and cleaning products became the iconic image of the consumer-panic that followed Canada’s descent to the planet-COVID in March. But six months later, the larger issue of supply and demand in a post-pandemic world continues to pose challenges to businesses in the Lakeland and across the country.
“We’ve had some businesses that have been very hard hit, but also some businesses that have had exponential growth and had to manage that piece of it,” said Linda Sallstrom, executive director of the St. Paul and District Chamber of Commerce.
“In terms of growth, how long can they sustain that? When do they need to bring employees back? Are we going to go back into a situation where they have to lay staff off?
“Even with that exponential growth, the uncertainty around it. Is this growth directly a response to COVID or is there something else there? So it’s understanding what the growth is and creating resiliency around that,” said Sallstrom.
The Right Water Bottling Company in St. Paul is one example of a business experiencing significant growth. According to co-owner Joan Siemers, while they’re not necessarily dropping off truckloads of water for communities like they were in March, the demand is still there.
“It’s trying to find stock so we can fill bottles and put them on our shelves so we have it available if the huge demand comes in again. We always make sure that we have a bunch on the floor in case of emergencies, whether it’s COVID or not,” said Siemers.
She said because of the difficulty in getting water bottles from her usual suppliers, she’s needed to more than double the number of bottles she keeps on hand. Increasing her stockpile impacts her cash flow and the space she has to work with in her 3,000 square foot facility.
“You have to stockpile a large amount in order to get through because you don’t know if you’re going to get bottles next time. Instead of stockpiling 1,000 bottles at a time, I’m looking at 5,000 bottles…One side [of the facility] right now is full. We’re cramped in there, but we’ve made room to make sure that we’ve got stock,” said Siemers.
Consumer goods have also continued to be impacted by shortages in the supply chain.
Graham Getz is the general manager of Cornerstone Co-op, he said with the increase in outdoor hobbies like gardening, there was also an increase in demand for the jars, lids, and other supplies needed for preserving produce.
According to Getz, they had difficulty sourcing treated lumber for all the fences and decks replaced by homeowners over the spring and summer.
“[People] were turning their backyard in to a paradise as much as possible because people knew they were going to spend more time at home,” said Getz.
“That was right from the mills themselves, they couldn’t produce it. They had challenges around COVID as well too and putting different protocols in place to ensure that their teams are safe. And so some of the mills had the challenges too, and that supply chain was disrupted.”
Getz said his team is trying to prepare as best they can to get ahead of the trends and so are the vendors for the different commodities they sell.
“In the past they might have made 20 different variations or recipes of it, maybe they streamlined that down to the top five or the top ten. And so that’s how they’ve streamlined their operation to keep the supply chain as full as they can.”
Going in to the winter months, car dealerships and tire companies are preparing for potential shortfalls in the number of winter tires they have available for customers.
“I don’t expect it to be as widespread as when Quebec mandated winter tires [in 2008], but because of the decrease in production because of COVID there’s probably going to be some sizes that are harder to get,” said Don Turcotte, the owner and manager of Fountain Tire in St. Paul.
Turcotte said he places his order for this winter based on last winter’s sales, and they’ll do their best.
One positive Sallstrom has seen is the growth of regional shopping in the Lakeland.
“If they’re coming from St. Paul, they’ll look in Lac La Biche and Bonnyville and Cold Lake before they make that decision. So we’re seeing more of that local piece,” said Sallstrom.
She said businesses should not be afraid of competing for clicks in the online marketplace because “people still want to know who they are buying from.”
“If we can get our businesses online and people can still buy their products locally but they can do it from their home they will.”
Sallstrom also noted that because of the diversity in the St. Paul economy, which includes oil and gas, but also agriculture and government services and is well supported by the indigenous communities in the area, there are opportunities.
“There’s an opportunity for our communities but we need to create a culture that supports our businesses and our entrepreneurs,” said Sallstrom.
To that end, she said the Chamber is working with the Alberta Chamber of Commerce, Community Futures, as well as the local chapters in Bonnyville, Cold Lake and Lac La Biche and to support businesses with the information they need for things like succession planning and moving online.