Toronto small businesses take to the street to protest unequal shutdown rules

Who: Two Toronto BIAs, with Zulu Alpha Kilo.

What: Out-of-work mannequins in what would normally be busy retail areas of Toronto. The installation was meant to raise awareness about the plight of small businesses shut down during the pandemic, while large retailers remain open for business.

When & Where: The installations were in Toronto’s West Queen West and Danforth neighbourhoods on Tuesday, with plenty of earned media after the fact.

Why: In late November, non-essential retail was ordered closed in the city of Toronto (and next-door Peel region) for four weeks as COVID numbers surged.

However, many large retailers have been allowed to remain open for the crucial Christmas rush—all but ensuring a sad end to a terrible year for many small business owners in those regions in lockdown.

While the small business owners realize the intent of the shutdown is to slow the spread of the virus, they say they should be allowed to operate in some fashion if people can still visit Walmart, Canadian Tire et al. Zulu Alpha Kilo came up with the cheeky, attention-grabbing installation to help spread that message and raise awareness, and hopefully get governments to reconsider the shut-down.

“The BIAs are not asking for much,” said Zak Mroueh, the agency’s founder and chief creative officer. They just want a more level playing field to compete with the large retailers, he said. “Specifically, as a first step, they want the province to allow them to be able to book in-store appointments with customers.”

One of the arguments from small business owners is that with their own strict controls on customer numbers and other precautions, they can open at least as safely as large retailers. “They are careful because their business depends on it,” said Mroueh. “Which may not always be the case in bigger stores. It’s harder to manage and keep up rigorous standards with so many people flocking to the bigger stores all at once.”

How: The mannequins were placed along sidewalks in front of storefronts, holding signs with pointed messages about the small business shutdown like “Hungry for customers,” “Storeless and cold” and “Spare lunch? Big box is eating mine.” Each sign included the hashtag #ThinkOutsideTheBigBox.

There was no call-to-action or paid media. This was mostly about a striking visual to generate earned media. And it did that: “It’s been covered on CBC news and other TV news outlets,” said Mroueh. “It even made front page of the ROB section of The Globe and Mail [Wednesday] and received countless hits on blogs, websites and news sites nationally and locally.”

And we quote: “Helping the BIAs felt personal,” said Mroueh. “As a small business owner, it feels unfair. And I wanted us to do our part as an agency to help fellow entrepreneurs.”

David Brown