The BC Chamber of Commerce released its COVID Impact Survey revealing a slight hint of optimism.
The comprehensive survey, the fifth in a series of BC Chamber polls (taken Dec. 3-18), asked 615 business leaders across the province a series of pandemic related questions.
With vaccines on the way, some were more hopeful than past polls, with 36 per cent of businesses feeling more optimistic for the next 12 months.
That leaves 64 per cent not so optimistic or unsure, and only one-out-of-five expecting to increase their employment levels in the next six months, but an improvement from the fall numbers.
“These surveys are regularly conducted by BC Chamber to learn what is on the bc businesses’ mind,” said Trail and District Chamber of Commerce director Erika Krest.
“Our chamber regularly encourages business owners to sign up to this platform, so we can gain a clear regional picture of our economy’s health.”
COVID’s most severe impact is a decrease in sales volume reported by 72 per cent of businesses across the province, and 62 per cent saw more than 25 per cent decline.
Kootenay shops and services fared a little better, but still a total of 65 per cent saw a decline in sales. The Kootenay region also reported that 19 per cent of businesses had increased sales volumes, compared to 12 per cent across B.C.
In all regions, more than half reported substantial increases in operating costs, 32 per cent were closed temporarily and 35 per cent laid off employees.
As for the upcoming year, the Thompson-Okanagan boasted almost 50 per cent optimism, while the Northeast proved the most pessimistic with 60 per cent having a negative outlook for 2021.
The Kootenay region was split with about 30 per cent with a hopeful disposition, and 35 per cent pessimistic, the remainder undecided.
The effects of COVID has forced businesses to increase protections at their own cost and follow restrictions, in fact, 63 per cent of businesses say their costs have increased, which, in many cases, are downloaded to the customer.
In addition, 34 per cent report a shortage of workers, and 31 per cent a decline in employee efficiency.
Despite the rollout of vaccines, Krest believes the increased costs of doing business will continue.
“My personal opinion is that the implemented public safety measures will continue to be in effect for many more months to come.
“Some COVID related safety measures might stay in effect from now on even after the pandemic is stabilized. I am referring here mainly to the food industry and hospitality sectors, but the list can go on.”
Most businesses reported using more digital solutions as a result of the pandemic, such as online meetings (63 per cent), digital payment (45 per cent), online educational tools (45 per cent), and digital marketing tools (41per cent).
But one telling area is that stress levels have increased substantially with 83 per cent of Kootenay businesses saying it has been negative or very negative.
Surprisingly, 24 per cent of Kootenay businesses are not using support programs, while the remainder are accessing some form of government support to assist during COVID including CEWS, CEBA, and CERB.
But businesses report that the major factors limiting their ability to increase sales or production is insufficient domestic demand (50%).
The looming question for many small businesses is how to get people out of their houses and back into stores, or at least shopping local online, rather than ordering from massive big-box outlets.
“This one is a super complicated question,” said Krest. “This is a conversation that we need to have on a much larger scale.
“With funding from the province, the BC Chamber of Commerce is developing and distributing regional ‘Small Business Resiliency, Restart and Transition to Recovery Playbooks’ to provide small businesses across the province with strategies to effectively respond and adapt to COVID-19 workforce challenges during and after the pandemic.”
In addition, the West Kootenay Focus Group provides insight to the development of this playbook, which will be ready for distribution in mid March. This project will complement the work of others such as WorkSafeBC, Small Business BC, the BC Small Business Roundtable and individual industry sector associations.
The province also announced Feb. 3 an offering qualifying small businesses grants of up to $7,500 to build or upgrade their online sales portals to help get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses can access applications through launchonline.ca.
The $12 million online sales fund is the second small business assistance program from the B.C. government’s $1.5 billion StrongerBC fund, announced before last fall’s election.