Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

10 March 2014

“The bone-chilling cold, the glaring ice, the slush, the sleet, the blinding snow… if you ask me what I’d change about this country, my answer would be simple: nothing,” says an upbeat TV commercial showing a sleek new vehicle braving the unpredictable weather of Canada.

Unfortunately, this time around the harsh polar winds and arctic cold have affected the car market as well. The Canadian retail figures for last year are in and new-vehicle sales slumped close to 4 per cent in December.

The car sector is not alone in this. Even though Canada is better accustomed to the snow blast than its neighbours south of the border, the severe weather has bruised the economy as retailers, factories and airports had to close or operate at a slower pace. As a result, the last quarter of 2013 ended on a down note with December’s economic figures being the worst since the recession – and all this blamed on the coldest winter in 20 years.

Overall, sales of electronics and home appliances were down by 13 per cent, while furniture stores saw a 7.8 per cent decline. Even discount and mass-market retailers that usually enjoy higher traffic during the Christmas shopping bonanza felt the blow: value chain Sears Canada and local dollar shop Dollarama reported 6 and 8 per cent drop in sales respectively. This was mainly due to the ice storm that hit Ontario and Quebec during the holiday season, keeping even the most fierce bargain aficionados from venturing outdoors.

For some retailers, however, the bitterly cold weather was good news: if your products are shovels or sleds, you’re quids in. Hardware giant Canadian Tire posted record sales of CA$4bn (€2.6bn) in the last quarter of 2013. The figures would have been even higher if it weren’t for the power cuts and store closures in some parts of the country.

You don’t have to be an economics expert to chart the downturn: the weather’s toll is noticeable at street level as well. “It hasn’t been this slow around here since we opened some years ago,” a barista friend tells me of the lack of customers at his previously always-busy café, two doors down from our office on College Street.

A shop manager on Queen West shares these sales concerns. “We usually have the spring/summer collections out on display by mid March,” he tells me from the usually bustling retail strip that is now deserted. “This year we'll have to push them back and keep on selling what’s left from the winter’s inventory, which could consequently affect the new-season line.”

With the seemingly unending polar vortex continuing to take its toll on the economy and temperatures dropping below minus 20C, I wonder if that upbeat copywriter should think twice before coming up with the tagline for next winter’s commercial.

Nelly Gocheva is Monocle’s Toronto bureau chief.

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