Campobello – There is only one grocery store on the island of Campobello, and soon there will be none. Owners Patty and Richard Bent say they have had enough, and they just can’t operate the store any longer as it continues to lose money. Patty Bent is currently living in Alberta, operating a bookkeeping business just to try and keep their heads above water while her husband is on the island continuing to do the best he can do with the Village Mart.
“It’s been coming for quite some time,” said Bent. “We’ve been struggling for the past couple of years, just trying to maintain our debt load. Richard and I decided that I would come back to Alberta and open up my bookkeeping business and get a start so we have money and income.”
Bent said she came back to the island last summer and as able to get the baker up and running, and then she went back to Alberta to earn an income for herself and her husband. She said business has dropped off so much in the past six months that they are unable to maintain their bills, and they had to make the decision to close the store.
“I said, ‘Richard, we’ve got to decide’, and he said, ‘we’re done’,” said Bent. “He’s miserable. When he sees no cars in the parking lot, he’s upset and emotionally strung out. We picked March 31 so he can close-up and get rid of inventory and go from there. I didn’t want him traveling in the winter. He needs to be out here with me, and he’s exhausted.”
When asked why she thinks business is dropping, Bent said there are a few reasons. First, most of the stores original clientele who supported them were older, and many of these people have either moved into retirement homes or have moved off the island completely. The shift drastically cut back on the number of customers they would see. Another problem is business drops off in the winter, and the bulk of their business happens in the summer months, between May and September, when tourists are on the island and people are coming home for the summer.
“Normally, our sales in the summer are between $8,000 and $8,500 per day. Last summer, we were lucky if we cleared $5,000. Right now, at this time of year, we should be doing $4,000 to $5,000, and we’re lucky if we’re doing $2,000 to $3,000. Our bills don’t change. Our power bill alone is $5,000 per month. Our wages don’t change. We still have to pay these bills.”
Bent said in addition to the regular power bill, when there would be power outages on the island, they have to spend an extra few thousand dollars to repair equipment that would no longer work when the grid came back on. She estimates she has spent more than a half a million dollars just in refrigeration costs for the store.
“My blood pressure is up, and my gut is in knots,” said Bent.
Island residents shopping in the United States is also contributing to the lower sales at the Village Mart. Bent said because the US is right across the bridge, many people are used to buying American products, and not Canadian. Unfortunately, Bent and her husband are mandated to sell Canadian products.
“We don’t sell products from the United States because we’re not allowed to,” said Bent. “There’s a lot of this going on around the island. They go across and buy American product and bring it back to sell to Canadian consumers. That’s highly illegal. I’m not pointing fingers. But, if they could come to our store for what they need, and they don’t.”
Another factor is the lack of help they receive from Sobeys, the company that owns their franchise.
“We were brought in by Co-Op Atlantic in 2012. They gave us promotions to put on, rebates, all kinds of stuff for us. They also knew the struggles of working on Campobello. They would let us pay what we could afford and in the summer we would catch up with the money owing.
“Then, Co-Op Atlantic got sold out to Sobeys. Sobeys doesn’t have a sense of humour. Sobeys is just happy to give us grocery sales, and they’re not supporting us anymore. We’re trying to do the best with what we have.”
Bent said things weren’t always like this for the couple. When the store was thriving, they had full shelves, and customers. But, people were still looking for US products, and they were leaving the island to get the products they really wanted and that the Bents couldn’t sell. Bent said they had to pull expired products from the shelves, or mark products down so drastically that they were losing money.
The Bents are getting older, and they are getting tired. She said she is 59, and her husband just turned 60 in December. In order to just maintain the bare basics at the store, he is working from 7 a.m. until at least 7 p.m., seven days a week. She said her husband just can’t keep up this pace.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Bent. “It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. We can’t survive in the winter time, and right now we’re not making enough to get us into the summer. We’ve been struggling since last year, and we just can’t seem to get out of it. I’m borrowing money from family members just to make payroll. I shouldn’t have to wake up every morning wanting to cry.”
Bent said at this point, the Village Mart is nothing more than a “glorified convenience store”. She understands the mentality of islanders who do a lot of errands when they travel to St. Stephen and other areas. If they are going to be doing banking, they may as well do their shopping at the same time. She gets that. But, she can’t compete, and she’s tired of trying.
Bent and her husband are still hoping that someone will come along and buy them out, but so far, there have been no interested parties. She said the store could prosper if someone were to come in and downsize it to a convenience store. But, it needs to be someone who can put some “serious equity and manpower” into it.
Bent said they will keep the Village Mart open until Tuesday, March 31. The last shipment from Sobeys will be coming in during that week, so there will be products on the shelves right up until the last day. If no one comes in before that time with an offer to take over, the store will close permanently.
“I don’t want to see the doors close,” said Bent. “But, for Richard and I personally, we’re exhausted and financially poor. We’ve got equity in the building and in our house, but like my accountant said, we’re equity rich and cash poor. As far as Richard and I are concerned, we’re exhausted. We need to enjoy the rest of our lives. We’re not young chicks anymore.”