Looming Canada Post work stoppage has Ottawa firms eyeing alternatives

Katrina Barclay is feeling a little uneasy heading into what would normally be a happy Canada Day weekend.

Ms. Barclay, the owner of Malenka Originals, has built a successful business selling refinished furniture, paint and paint accessories out of her small shop on Somerset Street West in Hintonburg.

The 2016 OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient also runs an online wholesale distribution enterprise that sells specialty paint brushes to retailers. Normally, she ships those products via Canada Post, the cheapest option for a small business like hers, but the looming threat of a strike or lockout at the Crown corporation has her worried.

“I’m very concerned about how I’m going to get those shipments out,” says Ms. Barclay, who has clients across Canada, in the United States and overseas and relies on Canada Post to get them their orders.

“If I have to start shipping with some of the other carriers, the costs are a lot more significant. And I don’t think my customers would like that passed on to them. I think I might just have to tell all my customers that I won’t be shipping out.”

Ms. Barclay is just one of many business owners in Ottawa who rely on the national postal service to deliver their goods and are now scrambling to make alternative arrangements in case talks between Canada Post and its workers break down. That could trigger a potential strike or lockout as early as next week.

Another Ottawa-area firm that relies almost exclusively on Canada Post, medical marijuana producer Tweed, has already begun using private couriers to deliver its product to consumers.

“Essentially, there’s two sides to the coin,” says Bruce Linton, CEO of the Smiths Falls-based company. “My one message is please just figure this out and stay working because you guys are actually doing well in the direct delivery of online purchases of everything. If these guys go out (on strike), I use a range of other couriers and everybody gets their stuff delivered to them.”

Mr. Linton, whose company’s customer base has doubled from 8,000 to 16,000 since December, says using couriers won’t really impact Tweed’s bottom line. But it does make his service less convenient for customers, who now have to drive to pick up their medicinal pot from a courier depot if they’re not home.

“It doesn’t impact our ability to ship products and it doesn’t impact our costs,” he says. “What is does is give a lower-quality customer-service experience because in the event you’re not home, it isn’t as easy to receive the package on the second try.”

Even though her online store accounts for just a small fraction of overall sales at her Hintonburg shop, Ms. Barclay says she’s worried that customers who normally order her specialty Chalk Paint online will simply switch to a less expensive brand from a big-box store.

“I am concerned if somebody suddenly says, ‘Well, I can’t get that paint, so I’m going to go to Home Depot and get (paint).’ I would like to get this product out to as many people as possible, and this definitely limits that.”

But some other local businesses are embracing the upside of a potential postal strike or lockout – including private couriers, who stand to see a massive boost in demand for their services.

“Should they go out, and I hear it’s like a 90 per cent chance, then we will be hit with an onslaught,” says John van Egmond, general manager of Ottawa-based Speedy Messenger Service.

Mr. Van Egmond says customers are taking a wait-and-see approach, so he hasn’t seen much of a bump in business so far. But if a work stoppage does happen at Canada Post, he expects to see as much as a 50 per cent jump in revenue.

“As soon as it becomes definite, then people scramble,” he says, adding the company might have to add as many as 25 more workers to its normal staff of 80 to handle all the extra orders.

Regent Lalonde, general manager of Horizon Messenger in Gatineau, says most of his customers are small businesses that are wondering how they’ll pay their bills and send out invoices if mail service grinds to a halt.

He currently uses 15 contractors to deliver packages but has already started interviewing others in case he needs to hire more in a hurry.

“I think everybody’s just waiting to see what’s going to happen this weekend,” he says. “From there, the phone is going to be ringing on Monday.”

Ms. Barclay is still crossing her fingers that Canada Post and its workers reach a last-minute deal.

“I’m sort of hoping for the best and hoping that (a work stoppage) doesn’t happen,” she says.

Canada Post has been negotiating with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers since late 2015. Management will be legally allowed to lock out workers on Saturday if a deal isn’t reached.