Struggling neighbourhood grocer hoping to produce better results with Calgary-wide plan

2020 may be the last year for the community grocery store, the Bownesian Grocer, if they can't boost the bottom line

Leann O’Connor (left) and Craig Sollitt, are hoping their 2020 plans can help them bring back the Bownesian Grocer back from the brink. BRETT KLASSEN FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The dream of making a Bowness community hub out of a neighbourhood grocery store could be spoiled for the Bownesian Grocer.

Craig Sollitt and Leann O’Connor, owners of the Bownesian Grocer, have nearly exhausted all options – and personal resources – to boost business. They could face closure this year if they can’t find the right combination for consumers.

“We aren’t completely out of ideas, but we’re getting to the bottom of the barrel,” said Sollitt.

Sollitt has been in the grocery business his entire life. He started in Salt Spring Island, B.C. working for Country Grocer, a small chain of family-run stores in B.C. He spent 20 years there before joining The Grocery People – a supplier for independent retailers – as director of retail operations for western Canada.

Costs mounted, economy soured

Sollitt and O’Connor bought the Bowness store in 2012. It’s struggled to stay afloat since mid-2016, due to a confluence of events.

“The first three years were pretty good. We had a steady increase in sales, costs were going down, they were really good. Then, the oil prices crashed and what we thought was going to be a normal cyclical change turned out to be more permanent, where there wasn’t the recovery that we had in the past,” said Sollitt.

He said in addition to that, Alberta’s minimum wage rose significantly in a short period of time.

“Over the course of the seven years we’ve owned the store, the minimum wage has gone up 59 per cent and with the economy down, our sales declined. We had three years [of] increase and three years of decline, and our costs went exponentially higher with the minimum wage and all other costs, but the big one was minimum wage,” Sollitt said.

The rise in minimum wage forced Sollitt to lay off 10 of his 30 employees. He said he can’t do any more layoffs, or they’d have to have to start dropping services like their bakery or deli.

Modest improvement in 2019

Sollitt said the store’s sales have risen about one per cent in 2019, but costs still outstrip revenue.

In order for the Bownesian Grocer to stay open, the average transaction needs to increase from $18 to $23.

“When we look at Bowness, with a population of 12,000 people, that drives about $35 million in food purchased annually, and we’re getting four (million),” Sollitt said

“Safeway would be doing the lion’s share of that, so that’s where we see and have always seen the opportunity.”

Sollitt said that he wanted to install a rooftop garden, equipped with a greenhouse, patio seating and a mezzanine where they could add basic services like a bank, post office, pharmacy, and restaurant. He also wants to repaint the store and get a new sign with their current logo.

“It looked as though we were on track to achieve all of those goals, until the economy took a turn for the worst and things kind of compounded in reverse,” he said.

Bowness newsletter boost

The store received a helping hand in this month’s issue of the Bowness Community Association’s newsletter, the Bowest’ner. Newsletter contributor Patricia Cormier wrote an article urging community members to shop local and help save the neighbourhood grocer.

“The grocery store is so good for our neighbourhood and it would be heart-breaking to see it go. I love being able to walk or ride my bike to get groceries, or stop on my way home from work,” Cormier wrote in the newsletter.

“It’s so much less stressful than joining the hoarders at Co-op or Superstore – driving, parking, elbowing your way through the aisles, dealing with big line-ups, taking a big chunk out of your day. In my opinion, the cost for those items that you can get cheaper elsewhere balances out when you factor in the travel time, gasoline, and all that fuss.”

“Having a thriving, local grocery store is a real plus for any community and helps improve the quality of day-to-day life.”

It even got a boost from the area councillor Ward Sutherland, who tweeted this week about the neighbourhood grocer’s plight.

Since newsletter rally cry, Bowness residents have been very vocal in their support, but it hasn’t yet been reflected in their sales, according to Sollitt.

The 2020 plan is set

They have a plan though. And some of it goes beyond Bowness.

This year, they plan to cast a wider net across the city. They’re going to reduce flyer frequency so that they can free up some funds to focus on marketing and social media promotion.

The store will also implement an e-commerce platform, so people can shop online and have it delivered. The service will be city-wide.

Their dream store, according to Sollitt, is to, “become a centre for the community, where you can get basic needs and never have to leave the community.”

The Bownesian Grocer gives back to the community through the local Bowness Lions Club and they have a pantry outside that’s filled with free perishable products like milk, bread, produce, and home meal replacements that would otherwise go in the garbage. Sollitt said that the pantry had about $15,000 worth of products last year.

They’re going to put their best foot forward to resurrect their community food store. With a slowly improving economy, there’s hope.

They’re also realistic.

Sollitt said they would have no bitterness towards the community if they were to go out of business.

“People are going to shop where they want to shop. We just want to make sure, now, they have the opportunity to connect the dots,” Sollitt said.

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