Mannequins and Santa put up a fight for small business

Two campaigns are helping Toronto BIAs tackle the advantages big box stores and Amazon have over local stores.

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By Chris Lombardo and Daniel Calabretta

Amazon and big-box retailers are expected to be the most popular destinations for the 71% of Canadians will do at least some of their holiday shopping online this year, with their experience in ecommerce giving them an advantage with shoppers who are looking for fast and affordable shipping options. But now that lockdowns have been re-imposed in Toronto and many other urban centres, these major retailers have another major advantage over small businesses: they get to stay open, due to the fact that they sell essential goods like groceries and hardware.

So what is a small business to do? Take it to the streets.

In Toronto’s Broadview Danforth and West Queen West neighbourhoods this week, mannequins that might otherwise be busy modelling in store were set up to appear like they were protesting inconsistent lockdown measures. With signs reading “storeless and cold” and “kicked to the curbside pickup,” the campaign is calling for lockdown restrictions to be modified to create a level playing field for all businesses, rather than using the broad categorization of “non essential” businesses that need to shut down.

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“Small businesses have all the same safety protocols in place: sanitizing hands, limiting the number of customers, even taking your temperature,” says Zak Mroueh, founder and CCO of Zulu Alpha Kilo, which worked with the neighbourhood’s BIAs to pull off the stunt, which he adds was also a little bit personal. “As a small business ourselves, we really felt for these guys…It’s just about fairness.”

Like a typical protest, he says the strategy was to create noise and get small businesses in front of the media and on social channels. Rather than encouraging shoppers to think locally, it is more of an advocacy campaign meant to push politicians to change lockdown policies, and get people to write to their representatives to air their concerns.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said that during the first lockdown, roughly one quarter of its 110,000 members reported normal sale volumes. More recently, CFIB president Dan Kelly says it’s heard from hundreds of its members, who feel the lockdown restrictions have created a massive unfair advantage for many big, multi-national corporations.

A bad santa stands up for the little guy

Elsewhere in the city, other small businesses are turning to another source of hope: Santa Claus.

A video created by Impossible Studios is dark and ominous, lightened up only slightly by the sound of Christmas bells and music. Santa Claus walks along a dumpsite at night with a bag filled with cardboard Amazon boxes – tossing them into the landfill and setting them ablaze. More targeted to shoppers than politicians, the spot tells people to “shop locally, or end up on Santa’s naughty list.”

The video is meant to be reused and repurposed for any BIA that wants to use it, with ten different versions so far being created so neighbourhoods including Greektown and Little Italy can speak directly to locals and highlight their own specific businesses. Impossible Studios’ executive producer Marco D’Angelo says the video “has united business districts from across the city with a unifying message…before our neighbourhoods, as we know them, change forever.”

The campaign also drives to Not Amazon, a website created to make local businesses in Toronto as shoppable online as the ecommerce giant, and has since expanded to listings for Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver.