Retail hours stoke emotions

Battle resurfaces in Quebec and Nova Scotia

An issue that Canadian communities face now and then — each time stirring passion and arguments from all sides — has resurfaced in Quebec and Nova Scotia. That issue is store hours.

In Montreal, a decision by mall developer Cadillac Fairview to extend weekday closing time from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. has gathered momentum. As of Sept. 13, some 1,000 stores went along with the change, which includes moving Sunday opening hours from noon to 10 a.m.

But those who hold out are vocal. Leading among them is Peter Simons, president of La Maison Simons, a Quebec clothing retailer employing 1,500 people in seven stores.

“I am on my little ship all alone in a stormy ocean,” said Simons, citing quality of life concerns as the main reason he’s not expanding operating hours.

“To be in a happy, positive frame of mind, the pillars of your life have to be well-balanced. That includes your professional life and your personal life. You have to have time with your family, with your spouse. You have to be able to co-ordinate your time off with your children and to spend evenings with your children.”

Simons said the organization has been “working hard in the last two years to build up the benefits that lead to quality of life for our staff.” These would include policies allowing consecutive weeks of vacation, as well as pension, dental and medical benefits.

Simons said he doubts the costs of keeping the store open will be recouped by an increase in sales. And rather than seeing the early closing time as a disadvantage, he said, “maybe this will be an opportunity to distinguish myself. The problem today is things happen and people blindly follow like a herd.”

Stores in malls may not have a choice but to extend their hours. Stéphane Paquin, manager at the Félix clothing store in Carrefour Laval mall north of Montreal, said the fine for not toeing the line is between $500 and $2,000 a day, depending on the size of the store.

“This is a specialized boutique, and the people who work here are professionals. They are career people. They have families, and this is going to mean worse for their family life,” said Paquin. He added that while he doesn’t have a choice but to go along, he will be looking for a lease elsewhere.

Neil Murphy, manager of corporate communications for Toronto-based Cadillac Fairview, said the new hours in the Montreal-area have been in place in Ontario and Alberta for at least a decade. Cadillac Fairview was the first to announce the new store hours at its four Montreal-area malls, but other mall developers like Ivanhoe are following suit.

“We are in an extremely competitive retail environment, with big-box retail and Wal-Mart. To keep up with that, we have to operate within the legislation which allows us to extend our hours and, therefore, meet the needs of consumers and drive the profitability and sales of our tenants.”

When asked about penalties, Murphy said only that the mall will work with individual retailers to “discuss different options.”

In Nova Scotia, a debate over whether to open Sundays will go to a province-wide vote in mid-October. The province, which toyed with Sunday shopping for six weeks leading up to Christmas last year, will ask voters whether there should be Sunday shopping, and if so, should it be restricted to the six-weeks before Christmas.

The province’s justice minister said whatever the vote, retail workers in businesses that currently close on Sundays will retain the right to refuse work on Sundays. Fines for employers that violate the Labour Standards Code will be increased.

Further, retail owners that wish to remain closed on Sundays will be protected from any penalty, the minister said.

David Crisp, a former vice-president of human resources at Hudson’s Bay Company, said retail employees tend to get used to new retail hours in a matter of weeks, but only if their employer gives them enough advanced notice for them to either arrange for a new routine or get used to the idea.

One mistake a number of Bay stores made during Crisp’s time was to move entire crews of shelf-stockers, who worked the day shift, to the graveyard shift. The store managers, said Crisp, gave stockers just one week of notice.

“People were very upset. They complained loudly,” said Crisp. He added that when HR professionals found out about the intended change, they tried to give workers two months of notice to adjust.

They managed to finagle just one month. During that time, HR coached managers to discuss the change with employees, ask them what the new hours would do to their family life, how they intended to get to work, what their worries were.

“It was things like the bus didn’t run or they were going to work in the dark. So we helped out with taxi fares and having security guards walk people to their cars in the parking lot. We put in these sorts of new policies to help people adjust. But it was still a big, big adjustment, and as a result, some stores were unionized.”

But handled properly, new retail shifts could be staffed with part-time employees willing to work the odd hours, said Crisp.

“There’s generally now a much wider mix of people who are available at any set of hours you need,” said Crisp, naming as examples actors, students.

Crisp does acknowledge, however, that people have a different mindset about work and play in both Quebec and Nova Scotia. In Montreal, for example, restaurants are generally packed in the evenings because people go out for drinks after work and then have dinner at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., more so than they do in Toronto.

“People who enjoy this and are used to this pattern are going to be disrupted.”

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