Manitoba duty free store owner says closed border, prospect of lost financial assistance ‘very scary’

A Manitoba duty-free shop owner is struggling to stay open as the border between Canada and the U.S. remains closed to non-essential travellers.

Simon Resch co-owns the Duty Free Shop in Emerson, Man. His family-owned business has sold liquor, tobacco, perfumes, cosmetics and Canadiana to cross-border travellers since 1982.

But he hasn’t been selling much for the last year.

“Because the leisure travellers have effectively disappeared from the border crossing in international travel, we don’t have a customer base.”

Resch says his earnings have dropped by 80 to 85 per cent, and there are just 15 staff on the schedule compared to pre-pandemic times when there would be more than double that.

“On certain weeks when maybe there’s a few more trucks out there, we’re down 75 per cent and we cheer, which is backwards to me, you know. It’s so strange,” he said.

Simon Resch, left, is the owner of Emerson Duty Free in Manitoba and Barbara Barrett is the Executive Director of the Frontier Duty Free Association. (CBC)

The same is true for the other 32 land border duty free stores on the Canadian side of the border, says Barbara Barrett, the executive director of Frontier Duty Free Association.

Unlike other businesses, duty free stores — which are independently owned — are heavily regulated by the Canadian Border Services Agency, which administers their licences.

“If people aren’t going into the stores then exiting into the U.S., they have no motor business,” she said.

“They can’t do online. They can’t pivot and do domestic sales because they’ll lose their licence. And they can’t do curbside pickup. There’s no way for them to pivot and do a different model of business based on the pandemic.”

All 33 land border stores are having to throw some items away that are past their expiry date, she said.

“They can’t even they can’t sell it domestically. They couldn’t even donate it without having to also pay duties and taxes on it, which can be quite expensive when you’re not having any revenue coming in,” Barrett said.

“It’s a pretty desperate situation for them across the board.”

Government assistance

Resch has made use of a myriad of different provincial and federal support programs, including the Manitoba bridge grant, the Canadian Emergency Business Account, wage and rent supports and the specialized resources for the tourism industry.

“Quite literally every single federal program that exists, we’ve applied for,” he said.

Barrett says these programs are built for businesses that have been able to pivot because of the pandemic and have lost some — but not all — of their income.

She says more needs to be done to support this very specialized industry.

That could look like tapping into the $500 million federal Tourism Relief Fund that the government proposed in its 2021 budget.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re the hardest hit of the hardest hit. We’re asking for a relief fund, a small slice of that $500 million,” she said.

Barrett says the association would also like to see a plan for reopening the border so the affected businesses can plan ahead. 

Right now, she says they’re in limbo.

Resch is concerned the existing support programs will end before the border reopens, saying his business would only last a month without any financial assistance.

“From where I’m sitting that’s very, very scary.”