Many businesses are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not all are expected to survive the shut-downs.
One business that has already closed its ‘doors’ for good is Welcome Wagon Canada.
Not that it ever had a storefront presence; Welcome Wagon, founded in 1928 in the U.S. by Thomas Briggs, could be described as the first “virtual” business – sending out Welcome Wagon ladies from their own homes, to deliver baskets-full of information, coupons and small gifts from sponsoring businesses, to welcome new residents to a community.
It was based on the idea of the neighbourhood ladies who would greet westward-bound settlers in the 1800s, providing fresh water, food and a warm welcome as they arrived in a new community in their Conestoga wagons.
Welcome Wagon has been active in Canada since 1930, introducing new residents to their communities, and welcoming newborns and their moms with gifts and useful information.
The American version of the company stopped in-person visits in the late 1990s, but the Canadian company continued to rely on personal, in-home visits by Welcome Wagon ladies.
Even before the pandemic hit, Welcome Wagon Canada was struggling financially, noted area manager Tracie Kennedy.
“The world was changing,” she said. People have become more suspicious, and often hesitated to invite Welcome Wagon ladies into their homes, to deliver information, explain the community and introduce the sponsoring businesses.
Even with the assurance that there were no sales pitches, no personal obligations, “we were finding it harder and harder to get in the door,” Kennedy admitted – although, she said, “Once we did visit, people would love us!”
COVID-19 was “the final blow.” Not only were sponsoring businesses suffering and closing their doors, the opportunity for interpersonal interaction had vanished.
“Personal visits are how we work. We also do events,” Kennedy said. Now, events have been cancelled and self-isolation and physical distancing have put an end to in-home visits.
“We’re personal, face-to-face – and people don’t want to see our faces at this time. It’s the end of an era,” she said.
Kennedy was greeted by a company rep when she first moved to Alliston, over 18 years ago. “We didn’t know anyone. Welcome Wagon showed up on the doorstep, and that made all the difference,” she noted.
In fact, she became a Welcome Wagon lady herself for 18 years, before taking on the role of area manager.
“I think there are still plenty of people who remember being greeted by Welcome Wagon,” Kennedy said. “It’s a great thing to do - great connections to the community.”
The announcement of the closure was made on May 4.
“I was quite shocked,” said former Welcome Wagon lady Cynthia Riley. She noted that while businesses paid to be included in the basket, there was no charge to the recipients - and a large part of the service involved providing information about the community.
“It was the information piece that I liked best,” Riley said, saddened that information, on everything from town services to local churches, is no longer being delivered to new residents.
Lyne Cortese, who operated the Baby Welcome program in both Bradford West Gwillimbury and East Gwillimbury for two and a half years, learned of the closure last week.
She expected that Welcome Wagon would be shut down for the rest of the year; with so many businesses closed, and fears of COVID-19, “we’ll be the last people allowed (to reopen) – especially me, with new babies,” she said.
Cortese is a full-time real estate agent. Delivering Welcome Wagon baskets to up to 50 newborns and their moms per year “was just a way to stay in touch with the community,” she said.
In fact, during the pandemic she has heard from at least six new moms, interested in a Welcome Wagon visit once businesses reopen. Now, Coretese said, she’ll have to tell them that the company has closed – but she is planning to drop off a gift basket of her own, containing hand sanitizer, gloves and masks.
Is there any chance that Welcome Wagon might return in a post-COVID world?
Kennedy noted that many Welcome Wagon ladies may still be interested – “They are ambassadors for the community, they love what they do, they love helping people” – but it’s an unlikely scenario.
“There’s a lot of components to running a company like Welcome Wagon,” she said. And while an individual community might decide to offer something similar, “The world is changing.”