A woman walks passed a building for lease that had recently housed Unique Clothing Plus in Whitehorse on April 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse business closures reflection of changing consumer priorities, WCC says

At least 8 Whitehorse businesses have closed, or announced they were closing, in recent months

At least eight Whitehorse businesses have closed or announced their upcoming closures in recent months, something the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce says isn’t so much a possible “doomsday” sign as a sign of consumers readjusting their spending priorities.

Zen Salon and Spa, the Wheelhouse Restaurant, Unique Clothing and the Birch & Bear salad bar have all closed since the beginning of the year. Farmer Robert’s and Tony’s Pizza are set to close by the end of April, while the Whitehorse location of Acklands-Grainger Inc. will close its doors in early June and Café Balzam is scheduled to close in the fall.

Robert Ryan of Farmer Robert’s said the grocery store is closing for good come April 28 because the business hasn’t been “financially viable for a long, long time.”

“That kind of didn’t stop me in the past (from) keeping it going…. But now, it’s not doing well enough to keep going at all,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he discovered within the first six months of opening in 2015 that there wasn’t a big-enough market for local and organic goods in Whitehorse to sustain a business in the long-term. The opening of grocery chain Save-On-Foods in August 2017, which hit Farmer Robert’s hard, and the fact that he has a young family and little management experience also contributed to him pulling the plug.

“Fact is that local products are going to cost more and the fact is people don’t, in general … want to pay (the difference),” he said.

Ryan said a flood caused by a water main break in February and that closed the store down for 10 days was not the reason Farmer Robert’s was closing.

“It’s the kind of straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of our morale,” he said.

Birch & Bear co-owner Katja Schmidt, who also co-owns the Miner’s Daughter and the Dirty Northern, said the decision to close the salad bar March 15 was also financially driven.

“It just wasn’t generating revenue,” she said. “It was busy … but you have to be extremely busy to be profitable in a lot of businesses.”

Running a small business in government-focused city like Whitehorse also presents unique challenges, Schmidt added.

“I can’t pay certain people what the government can, so it’s hard to have retention of staff and that’s expensive,” she said. “I think it’s hard in Whitehorse because it’s a government city and you’re competing with government jobs a lot of the time and I think that’s what a lot of small businesses would say here.”

WCC president Rick Karp said that the fact that several of the businesses that have closed or will be closing are food or personal-care based may be a reflection of changing consumer priorities. While spending on food services has seen a steady decline, he said, sales of vehicles, furniture and building materials have all increased over the past year.

“It seems that there could be an adjustment occurring in the marketplace … families (are) making decisions and setting priorities if they’re looking at getting a new vehicle or fixing up some stuff in the home, maybe they’re not going out to dinner as much,” he explained.

There’s also been a national shift in the business ownership market, Karp said — five or six years ago, for every business for sale, there were three potential buyers. Now, the opposite is true: for every three businesses for sale, there’s only one buyer.

Whitehorse’s relatively small population can make the effects of those two factor seem amplified, he said. The city is also on the “verge” of having a self-sustaining population size of 35,000 to 40,000 residents, but isn’t quite there yet, and businesses are still at the mercy of transient populations like mining workers and tourists.

Despite all the recent closures though, Karp said the WCC remains “really bullish” about what’s in store for Whitehorse’s future.

“There’s a lot, a lot of opportunities moving into the next years in Whitehorse that will be sustainable and it’s a very positive time to be developing, getting into business,” he said.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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