These Toronto local businesses are going against pressures of holiday sales, big box store domination

6 December 2022 / by Daniel Centeno

While shoppers anticipate deals and deep discounts this time of the year, several local Toronto businesses are taking different approaches this year. 

Three businesses are relying on their communities and quality of their product to counter the standards set by big box stores to go on sale from Black Friday to Boxing Day. 

Efforts include boycotting the seasonal discounts completely or asking to shop small businesses through social media. 

Uncle Otis

Vince Lai is the buyer director and manager of the menswear shop, Uncle Otis. The shop was started in 1991 by Roger O’Donnell, the keyboardist for the band, The Cure. The name comes from O’Donnell’s love for singer Otis Redding.

Before making 329 Spadina Ave. its home, Uncle Otis was located in Yorkville.

Like the previous three years during the COVID-19 pandemic, Uncle Otis boycotted Black Friday and thanked its community for the ongoing support.

“To go on sale now, customers just expecting you to just be on sale now all the way throughout Christmas to Boxing Day – this is not a sustainable plan,” said Lai.

A person with a grey clothing is holding a dog as he stands in front of a glass storefront.

Vince Lai is the store manager and buyer for Uncle Otis in west Chinatown. Photo by Daniel Centeno/CJRU.

Situated in west Chinatown, Lai acknowledges the changing atmosphere of the area, especially as gentricifiation continues and the local businesses that remain slowly recover from the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“For small businesses, it’s already tough as it is with rent and margins not being as great, especially before the busiest time of the year when you expect your highest traffic and your highest sales,” he said.

To help its community, part of the shop’s outreach includes promoting its community fridges program where residents can drop off food for those in need at no cost. 

Further, Lai said the shop continues to promote other local businesses across the city.

Lai cites other local businesses that want to continue to make west Chinatown their home, including the Kensington Food Market.

“As a small independent grocer, it’s tough to survive amidst big box stores, but it’s possible, we can make it work,” he added. “It’s up to the community to support each other.”

When it comes to fast fashion and consumption, Lai said Uncle Otis is focused on being honest with customers on cost, longevity of clothing and fair wages for workers.

While the shop has cultivated a strong following since the 1990s, the shop hopes to welcome new customers who may become interested in learning about the quality of their product, especially when it comes to timeless styles versus annual trends.

One particular brand the shop carries, Universal Works, decided to boycott Black Friday as well. The British workwear brand has a longstanding relationship with Uncle Otis, which includes collaborations on limited release pieces.

“I think it just boils down to education, just to educate your consumer and to let them know what is happening behind the scenes to make them a part of the process.”

Coffee and Clothing

Coffee and Clothing opened shop in 2018 with its first location at 348 Pape Ave. that specializes in the coffee side of the business. Its newer, second location on 841 Gerard St. is geared towards the vintage clothing with a strong focus on military surplus and workwear. 

The second location has also become a community hub, which was an original vision for the first space. A small cafe and a barbershop, called the Nite Owl East, are both located in the Gerard St. shop.

Co-owner Matt Schachtebeck is one of the key players in sourcing the shops’ clothing with his wife Jen. 

The other owners who focus on the coffee side are Gabby and Zoe.

Orignally from San Francisco (Jen is a Toronto native), Schachtebeck said the shop continues to emphasize the importance of community support and shopping small, especially for family owned-businesses like his own.

Four people sitting on a coach looking at camera. There are colours of green, beige and red in their clothing.

The four co-owners of Coffee and Clothing. Photo provided by Matt Schachtebeck.

“One of our main goals always with Coffee & Clothing was to really integrate ourselves in the community,” Schachtebeck said.

Part of the community outreach includes giving opportunities to smaller vendors, artists, musicians and others to showcase themselves at the shop.

Starting on Black Friday, the shop offered a small discount to encourage customers to “shop small.”

Schachtebeck said the shop is not actively participating in Black Friday and deep holiday discounts, but wants to encourage consumers to shop local and understand that all of the income goes directly to supporting the owners and their families.

To help discourage the heavy consumption of fast fashion and let customers know they’re getting a quality product, Schachtebeck said the conversation usually starts at the age of the vintage clothing and how well its quality has held up over the years.

Examples include military surplus items from the 1970s around the shop that Schachtebeck said can last another 50 or more years.

Also, he said its about communicating how older practices in producing clothing were meant to last compared to the modern mass productions of garments.

With the holidays now in full swing and as COVID restrictions ease, Schachtebeck said there will be more efforts towards community engagement and showcases. Upcoming events include the Maker’s market and other Christmas markets.

“Especially around the holiday season, its important for people to think about how they’re spending their money and where it is going,” he said. “Make sure you do a good search of what your local small businesses are offering.”

Latre art + style

Brian Vu is the owner of Latre art + style in the city’s west end at 3020 Dundas St. W. The shop opened more than seven years ago, focusing on military wear and Vu’s own customizations and designs primarily using natural Indigo dyes.

Customized items include embroidered m-65 military liners and overdyed Japanese selvedge cotton smocks.

Two people sitting down on stools with a white wall beyond them. Their clothes include a grey sweater and blue jacket.

Brian Vu and Sayaka of Latre art + style. Photo courtesy of Brian Vu.

Vu acknowledges the passion that goes towards being a local business owner and the importance of connections with those who share the same vision.

“What we do in small business is pretty simple: We know we won’t make lots of money, we know we won’t be millionaires,” Vu said. “But we know at the end of the day, we can be happy with ourselves and we could make great connections with really nice people that appreciate what we do.”

Like every holiday season, he wants to look beyond what he calls the corporate gimmicks of unnecessary deep discounts that push out local businesses. 

“Distractions like Black Friday, Boxing Day and Christmas sales will always be there.” 

When it comes to pricing both the sourced military pieces and his own creations, he said he prices them with the right intentions. The criteria includes functionality, quality, timelessness and natural processes.

Vu said there will always be a community of supporters that appreciate this work , which offsets any desire to compete with the trends and big box stores.

“I know we won’t be for everybody,” he said.

Without any substantial marketing or outreach to attract larger crowds, Vu said he is content with the communities he serves both in the junction and his loyal customers.

“Anything that happens organically is better of course, but it takes time,” he said. “But when it happens organically and naturally, that’s the best when people are taken by your ideas.”

Final Thoughts

With the holiday season in full swing, Uncle Otis, Coffee and Clothing, and Latre art + style hope consumers remember to shop local, and assess the quality of an item versus the price, especially when it comes to fast fashion and its longevity. 

Each store will continue its community outreach with its customers and fellow businesses in the city, both online and in-store. 

Listen to CJRU’s full interviews with the three local businesses: