Small-town store closure devastates owner

Saskatchewan entrepreneur wonders if her business will be able to recover once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted

The tears flow.

It’s all just too much: the store closure due to COVID-19, the disappointed customers, the inability to get new merchandise, the bills.

Christine Fitzgerald has faced many challenges in her life, but few have compared to this — a pandemic that has put her entire life savings at risk.

The Grenfell, Sask., woman opened up a new department store in her hometown seven years ago. The former petroleum land administrator lost her husband five years before that and she was looking for a life-changing project that would give her new purpose.

That project came in the form of CR Trenz, a 4,000 sq. foot department store on Grenfell’s main street that carried everything from socks, snowsuits and swimsuits to sewing supplies, kids toys, shoes, towels, knitting needles, jewelry, stationary, giftware and home décor. With lines like Dex, Bench, Alia and Silver Jeans, the store strived to cater to all ages.

“My whole life savings went into this place,” said Fitzgerald. “I was so proud of it when it opened in 2013.”

Fitzgerald’s goal was to provide Grenfell and area residents with what they previously had to drive for more than an hour to get. She was especially mindful of elderly people, who sometimes couldn’t make trips to the nearest city to get basics like shoes, boots, undergarments and outerwear.

“It’s heartbreaking because I know there are people who need this stuff right now, and it’s very hard for them to get it,” said Fitzgerald, telling the story of a local elderly man who was in need of slippers.

His health-care worker reached out to Fitzgerald and the store owner made a private appointment with the caregiver. Fitzgerald put together several comfortable outfits in the man’s size and his caregiver went home with a full package, complete with a brand-new pair of slippers.

Another elderly couple from a nearby town contacted the department store owner when the husband was in need of new runners. She again opened her store to them, taking all precautions, and they left with an armload of necessities and a brand-new pair of runners.

For Fitzgerald, closing her store on March 20 has meant she can’t serve those in need, but it has also meant laying off of two full-time employees and the loss of cash flow into her business.

She worries about paying the bills, which continue to arrive despite the store closure, but she also worries about how the store will survive after the government-mandated shutdown is lifted.

“I have had to cancel all orders now until the fall, so what I’m really scared about is that once we do reopen and winter and Christmas roll around, I won’t have enough stock or variety for my customers,” said a tearful Fitzgerald.

The COVID-19 fallout has also meant that some products are no longer available because her suppliers have had their share of pandemic-associated difficulties.

“There is a trail behind the scenes that is affecting everything from people who make our products, to shipping, to lack of supply,” said Fitzgerald. “I’m sick inside about it because even some of the orders that I had in prior to the virus will no longer be filled, meaning that I can’t bring in stock in the sizes I’ll need even when I do reopen.”

While there is a $40,000 federal support package for small businesses, Fitzgerald said it is not enough to cover her bills, especially when considering the need to order season-specific stock.

Her sewing section, which includes everything from fabric, thread, zippers and yarn, is severely depleted as people have turned to creative projects to help fill both the time and the need for face coverings.

Fitzgerald is hoping to re-open her doors in May on a limited basis and follow provincial guidelines. She said if the support is strong, it is possible that her business can bounce back.

“The best-case scenario is that we’ll become stronger as a community and business-wise, I’ll be able to continue to be here for the next 10 years,” said Fitzgerald. “But everything is uncertain. The only thing I know is that if the support comes back, I’ll go over and above to make sure people can get what they need right here in town, rather than online.”

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