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After 47 years of business in Altona, a venerable gift store and fair-trade enterprise is closing up shop at the end of the month.
The four-person board of Altona's Ten Thousand Villages shop — which began in 1972 as part of the country's first Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store before becoming the first Ten Thousand Villages store in Canada — unanimously approved the closure at its Dec. 10 meeting, citing declining sales, among other reasons. The store is run by an MCC board.
"This decision was not made lightly," said Sarah Wall, the store's manager. "I think it's important to focus on the legacy of the store and what it has done for the community and the artisans we support."
The Ten Thousand Villages store movement began in 1946, when Edna Ruth Byler, an MCC worker, took a trip to Puerto Rico and bought handmade embroidery made by impoverished women, bringing it back to North America to sell out of her car and at churches, parties, and social events. From that, the idea grew to become a non-profit dedicated to partnering with artisans — many of whom are women and live in developing countries — purchasing their handiwork to sell in North American storefronts and paying them a fair living wage in exchange, Wall said.
For the first 60 years, Wall said, the enterprise as a whole was financially viable for all parties, however, the organization's most recent annual reports indicate that it wasn't just the Altona store that was struggling to stay afloat and turn profits as the times and retail industry changed.
Ten Thousand Villages' national sales manager Michele Burnett said that even though the organization is a non-profit, "at the heart of it, we still have to sell." The Altona store, she said, was the smallest in the country.
In March 2016, total sales for the organization over the previous 12-month span — including artisan work along with coffee and other gifts — reached approximately $12.34 million. By March 2019, that figure had dropped to just over $9.02 million, representing a decrease in sales of over 26 per cent.
Total store sales for the year ending March 31, 2018 reached $12.82 million, but the figure for the next year dipped to $9.4 million. And in Manitoba, in-store sales have dropped by roughly the same amount, 25 per cent since 2015.
Much of the overall drops in in-store sales can be attributed to the decrease in total stores themselves. In 2017, there were 34 Ten Thousand Villages Canada stores, some owned by the company and others operated by a board. Since then, 10 have closed, with the Altona store soon to become the 11th. Stores in Calgary, Saskatoon, Montreal, Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Windsor were among the casualties in the last three years, and in 2014, the store in Winkler was closed and converted to a seasonal shop.
When nine store closures were formally announced in 2018, former CEO Holly deGraaf said in a press release, "The retail industry in Canada continues to experience turmoil as consumer habits and patterns shift, resulting in financial pressures and closures. Unfortunately, Ten Thousand Villages...has not been immune to these challenges."
In interim CEO Brent Zorgdrager's address at the start of the most recent annual report, he wrote that while the organization saw sales growth in board-run stores, e-commerce and wholesale channels, those gains "were more than offset by a larger decline in the sales through our company stores."
He wrote that goals for 2020 include boosting sales, clearing out old inventory, and managing the organization's net operating losses, which rose by nearly 200 per cent since 2016.
Once the Altona store closes, there will be four Ten Thousand Villages stores in Manitoba, including two in Winnipeg and one in both Steinbach and Brandon.
Wall called the store in Altona a "longstanding fixture," and said it was important for people disappointed in its closure to remember its legacy of helping artisans and the community.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.