The province is spending around $75,000 towards an online campaign — #ShopLocalMB — encouraging Manitobans to spend their money at the same businesses that government is forcing to shutter under new pandemic restrictions.
While commerce stakeholders are mollified by the Tory government’s efforts to mitigate the economic damage created under their own mandated orders, they’re unimpressed about how those are funds that will not directly reach the pockets of struggling businesses.
On top of that, political opposition critics — both NDP and Liberal leaders — are altogether skeptical about why the province "needs to spend that much money on what’s effectively just a dumb hashtag."
At a news conference Friday, Finance Minister Scott Fielding joined Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler to announce the online campaign, which they said will highlight the "stories of Manitoba businesses, entrepreneurs, makers and creators."
"We’re in a digital age right now and shopping online is one of the only tools that can help during this time," said Eichler, adding that the campaign is intended to encourage the use of curbside pickup and delivery options by promoting businesses that have that capacity to do so.
"These businesses have been there for us," he said. "Now we need to be there for them."
Fielding said the campaign will not include any billboards or advertising on broadcast media, unlike the #RestartMB messaging in the summer, which received widespread backlash about the promotion of loosening COVID-19 restrictions so people can go back to work and contribute to the economy.
"There are ways that you can support local businesses, which is really crucial, especially in the Christmas months," said Fielding, not specifying what kind of local businesses — big or small — they will be supporting. "Anyone can email us to nominate whoever they want us to promote with our platforms."
He added that they’re enlisting the help of Relish Branding to produce the campaign. Featured posts will be placed on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram until at least January.
Campaign costs will be used for "content creation, campaign design and management with the local creative firm," a provincial spokesperson told the Free Press, adding "the plan is to spend the money locally on content created by Manitoba designers, photographers, artists and storytellers."
The announcement comes after the province clamped down on retailers Thursday, mandating them to either cordon off non-essential items from being sold in store or remove them from shelves and aisles altogether. Failure to comply will result in fines and penalties for business owners starting today.
The new restrictions effectively closed down in-person sales of any clothing, flowers, books, recreational electronics, accessories, beauty products or at storefronts in Manitoba.
But asked why the province is "promoting" businesses instead of providing them with direct monetary aid, Fielding said, "there’s quite a bit of funding that we’re already providing through our business assistance programs — this is adding to that."
He deferred to the Manitoba Bridge Grant, Back to Work and Gap Protection programs offered by the government as "ways in which we’re offering the best level of support out of many other provinces in the country."
"We’re just reinforcing the ability to shop local in a safe way," said Fielding, who doesn’t believe it’s contradictory to encourage spending while Manitobans continue to be told to stay home as much as possible by Manitoba Public Health.
"It just adds to what Manitobans are already doing and really encourages them more."
For entrepreneurs like Obby Khan, who owns and operates Shawarma Khan and is a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber, "it’s incredibly disappointing for them to be doing this when that’s money that could be better used."
As a prominent member of the Manitoba’s business community, Khan launched a website called GoodLocal.ca during the pandemic that’s been successful in matching customers with local businesses by placing online orders.
"I saw the community struggling," he said in an interview. "And I knew I had to step up."
Currently free for businesses to be registered onto it, it’s already got 140 retailers and stores signed up with their products.
"All you have to do is search what you want — and it really can be anything from chocolates to knitting cloths to beer — and you can purchase that within a single cart."
Khan said he wishes the government could support something like GoodLocal which has already been successful in creating a digital platform to help businesses "instead of yet another hashtag."
"Don’t get me wrong," he said, "I’m glad that they’re doing anything, really, to help. I just wish they could check out what’s already been working and could’ve been a much better place to invest their resources."
Executive members from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Retail Council of Canada, and the Winnipeg and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce agree.
"Even though I think any little thing helps at this point," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for CFIB, "I don’t necessarily see how this is specifically targeted to help small businesses."
"In the past when we’ve done promotions like this, we’ve kept our costs in-house, "said Chuck Davidson, CEO of the Manitoba Chamber. "I don’t know if it’s different for the government somehow."
Wab Kinew, Manitoba’s official opposition critic, says he’s "had enough with these mindless promotions."
"The fact is," he said in an interview, "a hashtag isn’t going to help people keep their doors open. The government needs to wake up and open their eyes.
"Put this online money to help business actually have an online presence, not on meaningless things like this that are this miniscule."
Liberal leader Dougald Lamont agreed. "There’s plenty of Manitoba businesses that don’t qualify for any provincial business programs which is why the uptake is so bad," said Lamont. "This program is $75,000 to post on U.S tech platforms owned by billionaires."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.