The Progressive Conservative government’s launch of a campaign to encourage consumers to support Manitoba small businesses was immediately greeted by a barrage of criticism last Friday.

Spokespeople for four different business organizations said the campaign — #ShopLocalMB — was inadequate and misdirected. The provincial NDP said it was "miniscule" and "a mindless promotion," and the Liberals worried that the advertising campaign, which is online only, will further fill the pockets of "U.S tech platforms owned by billionaires."

Whether the volume and tone of the critical outcry was exaggerated given the relatively modest cost of the $75,000 promotion, it’s important that the hollering doesn’t drown out the commendable sentiment to support Manitoba’s small businesses. Pandemic restrictions have hammered small businesses to the point where some are close to hanging a "Gone Out Of Business" sign in their door. Many need a lucrative Christmas shopping season to cover minimum expenses such as rent and the salaries of their staff.



The key to the survival of some small businesses is whether Manitoba shoppers are willing to focus their purchasing power within provincial boundaries. It will take a strong show of Manitoba shopping solidarity to resist the lure of spending elsewhere, beginning with this week’s temptation of Black Friday, the annual frenzy of retail price-cutting that originated in the U.S. as part of that country’s Thanksgiving weekend and, through online technology and massive advertising impact, has stretched its reach into Canada and its duration into several days of frantic commercial activity.

The four weeks from Black Friday until Christmas are a critical time for retail businesses, which traditionally earn a large proportion of their income as holiday shoppers stock up on gifts. The Christmas shopping season of 2020, however, will be unlike any the Manitoba economy has previously experienced.

Small businesses in Manitoba that aren’t deemed essential have been ordered to shut their doors to in-person shopping until at least Dec. 10, forcing them to attempt to serve their customers through e-service, curbside pickup and delivery. The reason for the forced closure — to help slow the COVID-19 contagion — is understandable, but still a hard blow for the small-business sector that has already coped with eight months of restrictions such as physical distancing, mandatory masks and capacity limits that have challenged the merchants’ ability to make a living while offering Manitobans a pleasant shopping experience.

Pandemic restrictions have forced local businesses to close their doors.</p>


Pandemic restrictions have forced local businesses to close their doors.

The pandemic restrictions have prompted a change in behaviour among many shoppers, who are spending more time and money online. Such a shift brings challenges for the Manitoba small-business sector. Many can also offer their goods online, but not always for prices as low as retail behemoths such as Amazon that deal in great quantities and operate with substantially less overhead than the bricks-and-mortar businesses in Manitoba.

In such a David and Goliath battle for business, the hope is that Manitoba consumers consider the importance of supporting the Davids at home rather than international mega-merchant Goliaths. Local small businesses can connect with their communities, give shoppers personalized service and sell goods that are unique to Manitoba. They can help the Manitoba economy by hiring local people and paying rent and taxes within the province.

As small businesses struggle in this most unusual of Christmas shopping seasons, it’s more important than ever that Manitobans understand it matters where they spend. Shopping local requires a bit more effort and imagination, but every dollar spent in a local business is a vote for a thriving Manitoba economy.