At 4 a.m., most stores are locked shut with the lights turned off. An exception is the Circle K near the intersection of Church and Jane streets, just west of where Black Creek Drive turns into Highway 400 in Toronto’s west end. Only 10 people could possibly fit inside the small convenience store, but at this hour, it’s basically deserted.
This is where Gurpreet Sodhi, an Indian immigrant from Punjab, spends many nights.
He’s a hospitality student at Centennial College’s Progress campus on the other side of the city. He makes ends meet by working the night shift at Circle K.
“It’s good. It pays me $14 per hour here, and I’m happy with it,” Sodhi says.
Sodhi usually works overnights on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays in order to pay off his tuition. Sodhi squeezes sleep in after class and before work, usually from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“Usually there’s nobody here between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” he says. “The place is very empty, but it can get scary too.
“Two weeks ago, there was a shooting over there,” he says, pointing beyond the front of the store. “My friend saw it, and he told me all about it. Usually, it’s far enough where you can’t see it, but you can hear it … it’s happened quite a few times while I worked here.”
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“It’s good. It pays me $14 per hour here, and I’m happy with it.”
– Gurpreet Sodhi
Despite the occasional neighbourhood scare, working the night is easy compared to the day shift, says Sodhi. There aren’t a lot of customers at that time, so the job is much less demanding, he notes.
“I took a shift during the day and it was crazy,” says Sodhi. “We had so many people lining up, I got very tired.”
When not serving customers, Sodhi has several chores to complete: he adds the hot chocolate and the coffee mixes to their respective machines; he checks the prices of different items and occasionally changes them; he updates a daily itinerary of all items he’s sold.
He’s extra careful to document cigarette sales due to strict Ontario laws that require retailers to keep an account of all tobacco product purchases and sales for seven years.
In 2017, there were 9,069 convenience stores in Ontario, but the numbers have dropped to about 8,500 convenience stores because of increased competition, fewer smokers and because fewer young people play the lottery, says Dave Bryans, CEO of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association.
On average, about five convenience stores close each week in Ontario, Bryans says. The No. 1 issue is Tim Hortons, Bryans says. “It used to be that people used to get their breakfast at convenience stores, but now, everyone in the morning goes to Tim Hortons to get their coffee.”
Another challenge for convenience store owners is the decline in smoking rates and heavy taxation on cigarettes, which bites into profit margins. Bryans said cigarette sales are among the top three revenue streams for convenience stores, along with gas and lotteries. Stores that sell cigarettes only get a five per cent commission, Bryans notes, and it’s not enough to sustain themselves. The business model has to change, or Ontarians will see more convenience stores close down or get bought by large conglomerates, he says.
It may be quiet at night, but Sodhi doesn’t feel like the convenience store business is collapsing. “After 5:30 a.m., more people start coming here to start their day.”
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Online: Toronto Observer