Owning, operating or even working in a convenience store in St. Thomas, or for that matter anywhere, is not for the faint-hearted.
Long hours, the constant tussle with theft and miniscule profit margins don’t paint a rosy picture for employment, or investment, in a corner variety store.
But those are minor inconveniences compared to the death struggle now facing Mary (not her real name) who has put in a minimum 60-hour week at her variety store for more than a dozen years.
Contraband tobacco — two words that have become a rallying cry for Mary and the owners of about 9,000 convenience stores in the province.
She warns several neighbourhood variety stores have either closed or are on the critical list because the sale of illegal cigarettes has decimated their bottom line.
“It’s taken such a dive because taxes are so high on tobacco, sold legally,” Mary told City Scope this week.
“I would say we’re probably down 50 per cent (in tobacco sales). And you notice a dip in other things when there’s a dip in tobacco sales. I don’t know if the general public understands it’s not legal. People are buying contraband cigarettes from the back of white vans that pull up in the parking lots of factories.”
So, where are these contraband cigarettes coming from?
“Things come across the (U.S.) border as easily as me walking across Talbot Street,” she informs.
“I’m not pointing a finger specifically at one group,” Mary continues. “But, I have something against illegal activity that’s taking food out of my mouth. I can’t stand on the corner and sell you a bottle of rum. Why can they sell tobacco illegally and take half of my tobacco sales.”
Sales that generate a trifling 15 to 17 per cent profit for her. Compare that to the mind-boggling mark-up on clothing.
Her total profit margin from all sales is only about 18 per cent — not much of a financial reward for a 60-hour stand behind the till.
“I’m not confrontational. I don’t want to be in anybody’s face about this. I just want to do my business. If the government is not going to do something about this, they’re going to have to give us something else. We employ a lot of people in Canada.
In a perfect world, Mary would like to see a level playing field.
“I’d like to see everything done legally again. I follow all the rules. I carry legal tobacco. I would like to see everybody following the rules. I would like a level playing field. As a law-abiding citizen, I don’t think that’s too much too ask for.”
A PENNY BUSINESS
And neither does Dave Bryans, president of the Ontario Convenience Store Association, and all too familiar with the situation in St. Thomas.
He has a passion for the corner store that used to be a fixture in every neighbourhood. His association includes about 7,000 such stores in the province and he marvels at their tenacity.
” The one thing I admire about small businesses is it’s a penny business and they know how to manage pennies,” he told this corner.
He’s well armed with statistics that document the toll imparted by the sale of illegal tobacco.
“This is the first time in the history of Canada that the illegal market has surpassed the legal market in Ontario,” he notes.
“Now you’re seeing one million Ontarians every week having access to purchasing illegal products. And it’s costing this government, we estimate, about $1 billion a year.”
For the uninitiated, contraband cigarettes are priced cheaply, often selling for a buck a pack. They are sold with absolutely no government inspection, tax collection or age verification.
That right, grade schoolers are being offered these so-called bargains by classmates and total strangers.
As for high schools, they’re a haven for contraband sales and City Scope will deal with that next week.
Just because you don’t smoke, don’t think this problem is not your concern.
“It affects all of society,” Dave stresses. “From the tax levels the government is ignoring to a complete lawlessness in the community. What the RCMP is saying is they’ve done tests on the product and its got mould and feces. No one knows what they are even smoking.”
Governments knowingly know what’s going on, he explains, and they just don’t know how to correct it.
However, he adds, it’s more than a tobacco issue.
“It’s an issue of total lawlessness. And yes, we sell tobacco, but we do it professionally under the “We Expect I.D.” mandate.
“People can pull up and open the trunk of their car and sell you a bag of cigarettes for a tenth of the price we sell them for and there is no political will from the local health board to stop it. The police forces haven’t been given the power to stop it and the government is ignoring the issue.
“We are so determined to correct this, not because it’s an issue for small business, but it’s wrong for society. If we don’t get our act together, we’re going to have huge, huge issues in the future.”
Ban youth possession, consumption and purchasing of tobacco is the sledgehammer approach needed to begin dealing with contraband tobacco, advised Dave.
“Let’s start somewhere and protect our youth.”
That’s next week in City Scope. ( Read “School boards and health unit …” )
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“There’s a lot of little variety stores in St. Thomas that are hiccupping and coughing. There’s a couple that have closed and there’s more coming.”
A dire warning from a city convenience store owner on the financial impact that results from the sale of contraband tobacco.
City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.