For Whom the Bells Toll

Press photo

Reminiscing on simpler times, Suzanne Ohana remembers the cold snap that sifted into her boutique with every swing of the door as waves of fiancées and bridesmaids filed in, eagerly awaiting their dream dress fitting. Today, those same doors appear welded shut, of use only to the shop’s owner, the rare journalist and the even rarer client. 

Until a few years ago, spring brought the prosperity and hopes of wedding season to Plaza St-Hubert, the city’s hub for bridal services. Such hope has turned to despair and uncertainty, as Montreal business owners who once felt blessed to be part of a thriving commercial district now feel trapped within it. They are struggling to justify the ends to their means as the wedding industry is seeing a structural transition. 

For over 30 years, Ohana has owned La Mère Des Mariées Suzanne Couture, a bridal boutique at Plaza St-Hubert. As a Moroccan immigrant, she moved to Montreal 50 years ago, owning several stores throughout her time in Canada, using her business ventures to make a name for herself in a foreign land. Now in her seventies, Ohana sold all her businesses except for La Mère Des Mariées, which she is desperately trying to rid herself of despite her attachment to the place. 

“I’m going to be honest. If my merchandise was not already paid off, I would have left a long time ago. Never would I stay here,” Ohana said. With over $2 million worth of products to sell and little to no customers, the boutique owner feels stuck, saying: “Even if I cut everything down to half-price, no one would come, and I would rather burn every dress I have than sell them cheap”. 

Ohana is one of many Plaza St-Hubert tenants who are feeling the pressures related to the shift in the wedding industry. For over 50 years, Montreal’s home for bridal services has been a staple of the city’s commercial and cultural heritage. Though it now offers a wide array of entertainment and culinary attractions, bridal boutiques, shoe stores, tailors and haberdasheries litter the kilometer-long strip that is home to over 400 businesses. 

Though the street’s prosperity strongly relies on the wedding industry, across the last 20 years, St-Hubert’s Société de Développement Commercial brought the plaza’s vacancy rate down to 3 per cent from a previous 15 per cent high according to the association’s executive director Mike Parente, establishing it as one of Montreal’s premier commercial areas. 

Regardless, medium- to high-end suppliers of wedding goods and services around the city are confused, as they have seen a dramatic drop in customer interaction and sales. 

According to Statistics Quebec, the number of couples getting married in the province is similar to, if not higher than, pre-pandemic numbers. 

Thomas Fresco, a Concordia University alumni, has been planning his wedding since February and came across many unplanned setbacks. According to him and his fiancée, most services, such as bouquets, pastries, and even make-up and hair, increase in price solely due to the nature of their celebration. 

“It’s ridiculous. Everyone’s trying to make extra money because of inflation. Like for [my fiancée’s] hair, she finally found a place that was cheap for the bride; it was $300,” Fresco said. “If I tell them it’s for my birthday, it’s $70, but as soon as they hear “wedding,” they jack up the price.”

Due to such increases in service prices, couples are looking for cheaper alternatives wherever they can, turning towards Amazon and other online outlets for discounts. Within the last decade, businesses of all industries have faced the threat of e-commerce, as customers can now purchase medium-high quality goods for less, which is especially threatening to small business owners within the St-Hubert plaza as the average Canadian wedding costs $30 thousand, and consumers are chasing convenient online discounts over local markets. 

“They [customers] only come to us to get their measurements taken. Or they only come to take pictures because they want the same dress but cheaper online. Others [owners] take them because they’re dumb, but not me,” Ohana shared. 

Customers are starting to feel the owners’ frustration seep through their service. A group of teenagers from the West Island were taken aback by how rude certain owners were to potential customers upon their visit for prom dresses. They shared that some owners immediately brushed them off or rushed them out of their shops since no parent with the means to pay for the dresses accompanied them. 

George Nader, owner of the Noces Royales bridal boutique, tries not to transfer his frustrations onto his clients as he understands their predicament. He states that in this day and age, consumers will do what they must to stay afloat and carry on. He instead criticizes the city for its lack of support, as he believes it taxes small businesses disproportionately compared to conglomerates. 

“We get tax increases; that’s how the government shows their support,” he said. “$2000 in city taxes is too much for a small business.”

Mayor Valérie Plante announced this January that, through its Petite et Moyenne Entreprise Montréal initiative, the city would invest $36.7 million in small businesses and their support networks.  

To promote business within the plaza, Mayor Plante and Mike Parente hosted a press conference on April 9 announcing that between July 4 and Aug. 25, a stretch of the plaza will be pedestrian-only to make the street more accessible. 

Though the initiative is promising for the local community, business owners such as Ohana and Nader have lost faith in the city. Business owners across the strip are adapting to the shifting market on their own by selling lower-quality products, pandering to different styles of merchandise and cutting staff. 

Back when the wind blew customers through her doors in droves, Suzanne Ohana recognized the value of Plaza St-Hubert as a cultural and economic anchor and saw a future within the community. These days, she sees no advantage to settling into the plaza, as inflated taxes cut new business owners at the knee, and the wedding industry drawbacks outweigh the benefits of a communal market, regardless of the plaza’s resilience and commercial success. 

“The city does nothing at all for us; they do absolutely nothing. They just want to touch our taxes,” Ohana said. “I do not have any employees. We used to be five saleswomen and two seamstresses working all day, but now I am all alone, and business is going very badly.”

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