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Local merchants bearing up well

(Francis Crescia/Vaughan Today)

Billions in federal tax dollars to stimulate an ailing economy. Tens of thousands losing jobs. Home sales down. Foreclosures up.

The news is grim. Just how grim, though, depends on who you ask.

“It’s going to get really ugly, I think,” says Sue Gergely, an independent mortgage broker in Thornhill. “It’s like a huge ship to turn around. It’s not going to happen overnight.

“Being in my business, you get all the literature from all the different banks and all the different lenders, so you get to see. It’s not pretty right now.”

The numbers are stark.

Canada’s gross domestic product shrunk 0.7 percent in November, the largest drop since August 2003, economists at TD Bank Financial Group say.

Vaughan’s economy by the numbers:

• 162,000: people employed in Vaughan, Oct. 2008
• 9,000+: number of businesses in Vaughan
• 96.86: percentage of Vaughan’s business that are small or medium sized (less than 100 employees)
• 18: average number of employees per business
• 45,783: people employed in the manufacturing sector
• 19,870: people employed in the retail trade sector
• 18,710: people employed in the construction sector

In December, 34,000 people across the country were handed pink slips, nudging the national unemployment rate up to almost 7 percent. TD’s economists are projecting another 250,000 job losses this year, boosting the unemployment rate to over 8 percent.

None of this will come as a surprise to any regular news consumer. These are the stories that have been making headlines for months and making us all aware things are just plain bad.

But despite the economic doomsday scenario splashed across TV screens and newspaper pages, not everyone is glum.

“A lot of it’s hype,” says Dan Coldwell, vice-president of business development at Vaughan-based PACE Credit Union. “I think that back in the early ’80s, the recession that we had then was worse because it was combined with double-digit interest rates and double-digit unemployment.

“We’re in much better shape going into this one. It’s just simply a haircut.”

In Vaughan, the retail evidence seems to back Coldwell up. At Vaughan Mills over the Christmas and Boxing Day shopping season, the mood was generally upbeat.

“I heard a whole pile of pretty good news compared to the bad news when I was walking around,” Vaughan Mills General Manager Gil Small says. “We didn’t have large increases but the (retailers) that I’m talking to, some are saying, ‘Well, I did about the same as last year,’ or ‘I was up a few points.’

“I consider that really positive because I see what goes on across the country at other shopping centres and some of it is pretty dismal. We had an incredible October and November.”

Sales were up 17 percent in October and 15 percent in November over the same months the year before, Small says. And the numbers for Boxing Day were equally encouraging.

“We put through 89,000 people in that day,” he says. “It’s like a city coming in and out. We were up 2 percent in traffic over the prior year.”

For a little perspective, Small adds, Vaughan Mills sees an average of 40,000–50,000 people on a typical Saturday, the mall’s busiest shopping day of the week.

People are indeed still out shopping, says Mauro Di Tacchio, co-owner of Europa Jewellers in Woodbridge. That hasn’t changed despite talk of a recession. What has, he’s noticed, is an increased desire for bargains.

“We prepared ourselves,” he says. “The lines that we brought in, especially at Christmastime and during the summer season, were geared toward that lower-ticketed item, in line with the way the economy was going.

“I think we’ll be fine going forward because people still want to buy gifts and give gifts for special occasions. . . . We’ve positioned ourselves well.”

Di Tacchio recently joined the local chapter of an international small-business networking group that allows entrepreneurs to share leads and drum up new business.

But what can you do?

Simple advice to help you — Vaughan’s consumers and business owners — weather the global economic storm:
• Watch your discretionary spending
• Use cash whenever possible
• If you’re in the market for fresh fruit, a TV, a house — anything — look for bargains, they’re out there
• Keep your debt under control by avoiding high-interest loans and credit cards, and by refinancing to take advantage of historically low interest rates
• Take advantage of a tax-free savings account to save for a rainy day
• Create or review your financial plan
• Do some research on government programs designed to help small businesses
• Network to find new opportunities for your business and stay in touch with past clients

Gergely, the chapter’s vice-president, says some members directly or indirectly get upwards of 25 percent of their annual business through the networking group.

It wasn’t long after Di Tacchio joined that Gergely found herself in Europa Jewellers.

“Someone gave me a watch and I didn’t like the band,” Gergely says. “I thought, instead of going just anywhere, why don’t I support the guy in my group?”

While Di Tacchio replaced the watchband, Gergely spotted a necklace she liked enough to buy. As the two spoke, Di Tacchio mentioned he knew some first-time homebuyers that might need a mortgage.

That’s how networking benefits small businesses and can help them weather the current economic storm, Gergely says.

“It’s a family,” she says. “You really want to look after your own.”

Consumers, too, are looking to their neighbours and making an effort to keep their dollars close to home.

“I live in Concord,” says Cathy Ferlisi, Concord West Ratepayers Association president. “I’m proud to live in Concord. I’m proud to live in Vaughan. As such, I shop Vaughan first, … then Toronto if necessary.

“We shop at the Promenade and if I have to, I go to the box stores in Woodbridge and if not, then we hit Yorkdale.”

It’s exactly this sort of shop-Vaughan-first mentality Mayor Linda Jackson would like the city to foster through a new awareness campaign.

“By spending our money here in Vaughan, we are contributing, in a sense, to our own stimulus program,” Jackson writes in a recent email.

Within the home, Ferlisi says, fiscal belt-tightening doesn’t mean consumers have to forfeit life’s little delights. Quite the contrary, she says.

“A lot of people my age or of my generation tend to pick up the phone and order a pizza,” Ferlisi says. “Simplify. Go buy two pizza doughs and make your own pizza and make it a family event.

“They can make it fun and they’re saving money.”

Vaughan Today
In print: February 6, 2009, page 8
Online: February 5, 2009 [link]
The Upswing special series