As provincial lockdowns and stay-at-home orders continue to keep many non-essential businesses closed, more and more shops are pivoting to online platforms.
The rise of e-commerce is nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how crucial it is in order for small businesses to survive.
READ MORE: Canada on track for record online shopping year due to coronavirus pandemic
According to Statistics Canada, from February to May 2020, total retail sales fell by 17.9 per cent; However, online purchases surged by 99.3 per cent
Brick and mortar shops have been forced to adapt, and a shift in consumer habits seem to be favouring the digitally-savvy.
Here are some tips from five Canadian businesses on transitioning to online platforms.
Building a website
When Alberta entered a state of public health emergency last March, Theresa Ransom closed the doors of her gift boutique shop in Calgary.
Two weeks later, she launched the website for her store, Kala & Lime.
“It was critical,” Ransom said, adding it was a game changer and reduced her stress levels significantly.
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She says creating a website has enabled her to reach a wider audience, receiving orders from people all over Canada.
“Canadians have been crazy supportive,” Ransom said.
In July 2020, Shopify partnered with the federal government to launch Go Digital Canada, an initiative aimed to help small businesses transition into the digital economy.
Squarespace and Wix are also two other options for people looking to build a website.
“There’s so many options for online providers,” says Ransom, adding that now is definitely the time for businesses to create a website if they haven’t done so already.
She adds that maintaining a website does take dedication and patience, but it has definitely paid off and has kept her “in the loop”
Reaching out for help
Christie Pinese, a Toronto-based homeware and lifestyle shop owner, says she’s lucky to have already established a website when she opened her shop in 2019.
She now spends hours maintaining it — taking photos, updating her inventory and processing orders.
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Pinese, who owns Rose City Goods, hired someone to help with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), referring to the keywords used on her website which boost her Google rankings.
“I feel like the biggest piece of advice is to make sure your SEO is up to par,” she said, adding that her online sales have grown exponentially compared to in 2019, when her website sales were less than 5 per cent of her overall business.
Pinese says once businesses start to reopen, many of them will still have to rely on e-commerce to stay afloat.
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She adds that mom and pop shops owned by older generations may face more challenges, but it’s important to remember we can’t do everything on our own.
“We’re not all experts. We’re not all super tech-savvy and, you know, while some questions can be answered on a quick Google search, we can’t do everything,” Pinese said.
She recommends picking one thing you think will be impactful for your business — like setting up a website or social media account — and outsourcing for help if you don’t know how to do it.
“You may not want to spend a little bit more hiring someone, but it’ll pay off in the long run,” said Pinese.
Collaborate with other businesses
Asha Wheeldon, founder of Kula Kitchen in Vancouver, says the largest part of her business model is collaboration.
Kula Kitchen makes Afro-vegan food and their website has a “favourites” menu which features products from other local producers.
“I think if it wasn’t for that connection to others and everyone that was also going through this… I don’t know what it would have looked like for us,” Wheeldon said.
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She says she is lucky to operate out of Coho Collective, a large-scale shared kitchen space where other small businesses prep their products for the week.
For standalone shops, Wheeldon recommends reaching out to businesses you may have worked with before or people who are doing similar things.
“We met so many different new faces, which I don’t think would have been possible in the past,” she said.
Be ready to adapt
Cory Christopher, based in Edmonton, runs a creative design studio that offers a range of services from corporate event design to hosting terrarium workshops.
Christopher says even though he’s had to put bigger projects he used to enjoy doing on the back burner — like wedding services — he’s trying his best to “embrace ambiguity” and adapt.
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In the spring, Christopher began offering flower arrangements and subscriptions, as well as online workshops where people could purchase a terrarium kit and join him on Zoom.
“It was really important to not just try to sell anything, but to try to connect with what people were craving in those moments,” he said.
“We called it ‘cultivating joy’.”
He recommends doing “micro tests” on products and seeing how people respond, so you’re not pouring a lot of money into new ventures.
“But have an open mind,” he said.
“I used to very much be a planner — I like to have my six months plan, one year plan…and what I realized is though having an outline is great, we need to focus on shorter distances right now.”
Finding creative ways to connect
Toronto-based owner of Papa Love Vintage, Kez Garber, doesn’t own a physical store, but she’s always looking for new ways to connect with her customers on Instagram.
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“For me, it’s about relationship building,” Garber said.
“A lot of times people are messaging me being like ‘I hope you’re well, I love what you’re doing,’ and even if they’re not buying anything I think it’s one of the most important ways to show support.”
Garber posts each piece of clothing on her Instagram page or story and tags customers who have made a purchase.
When she sends her packages, she always leaves a personal thank you note to show her appreciation.
Garber adds that the push to shop and support local businesses is more urgent than ever.
Online directories like Not Amazon, Niche and Shop Local Canada are useful resources to help people keep their community businesses afloat.
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