For the past couple of weekends, cars have lined up through the parking lot of Mission: Fun & Games in St. Albert, winding onto the street as drivers wait patiently for a turn at the drive-thru service to buy a puzzle or board game.
It's an unusual sight in the time of COVID-19, when most retailers and small businesses are shut down or operate with just a skeleton staff. And it's all the more surprising when looking at a recent survey from the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, which shows that because of COVID-19, nearly half of small businesses expect to fail, with three per cent already shutting their doors for good. As well, some 86 per cent have seen a drop in revenue, and a majority have had to lay off staff.
To say that Mission: Fun and Games is bucking this trend is an understatement. The near 30-year-old shop is seeing March sales to rival last year's, and a noticeable uptick in online and curbside pick-up sales over the last month. But likely more than anything, it's the unique drive-through service that is capturing the attention of consumers, according to store owner John Engel.
"This may be the first drive-thru family game store in Alberta — even Canada," laughed Engel. "We used a sea-can to create a delivery counter, and encased a pin-pad so customers can safely make a purchase. While the customer waits, we get the order together and then push out the basket of goods on a conveyor belt, using a regulation hockey stick--the perfect six-foot length for social distancing. People are enjoying the whole process, and that's probably what's causing the spike in sales right now," he said, adding that his curbside pickup and same-day drive through service beats Amazon's current wait times of up to a few weeks.
Engel said some six out of eight items currently sold are puzzles, (though he's doing good business with chess boards, board games, Pokemon and role-playing games too). But more than anything else, puzzles, he said, offer a peaceful, relaxing solitary use of time, while also able to be highly interactive, with entire families working to complete the picture. At a time when many are homebound--with parents off work and kids off school--it's an old-school form of entertainment that's resonating. And at under $30 for most types of puzzles, it's an inexpensive way to pass the time.
While some manufacturers create puzzles with larger pieces perfect for seniors, the most popular are 1,000-piece sets that are optimal for families to work on together. Engel said the shop is currently out of stock in almost all 1,000-piece puzzles, but his distributors in Quebec, Ontario and the U.S. are shipping hundreds more in coming weeks.Individuals, seniors facilities and even prisons are top customers for puzzles, he said, and to respond to that demand, Engel said he will now also offer free delivery to seniors centres in St. Albert, with a minimum $75 purchase. That order can include paint-by-numbers, dot-to-dot books and shuffleboard wax tubes. Engel said his practice of allowing jigsaw puzzles on consignment is suspended due to COVID-19.
"We are still able to get product because we have long-standing, good relationships with our suppliers. and we can buy case-loads of puzzles. Most distributors are working with skeleton crews right now, and they're just trying to fill existing orders," he said. "We know we can sell whatever is coming in, because we get calls everyday of people wanting to send a puzzle to a relative in the senior's home or for themselves."
While Engel's staff of 11 include a few who are now self-isolating, remaining full time and part time staffers are as busy as ever. He may even have to hire more if demand continues at this pace, said Engel.