Ingenuity will save #smallbusiness

June 22, 2016

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A global shift

Our world is currently in a significant transit phase. Every aspect of society, from the economy to the environment is up for discussion and disruption. Change is everywhere, in technology, communication, politics, art, design, transportation, industry and fashion. It seems that we have collectively but perhaps unconsciously agreed to work towards a more sustainable, ethical, mindful global society, but this transformation doesn’t come without its growing pains.

One example of this is in retail: online and in person. Come this fall, I’ll officially be a small business owner. With this title comes the responsibility of representing other small business owners and sharing in their struggles and triumphs. But in this age of e-commerce, in which EITHER/OR will be deeply embedded as an online shop,  the ties between brick and mortar stores and online ones are a little shaky and some store owners are wary of e-commerce and its effect on in-store business. This is a valid concern that the online and offline shopping communities should address together in consultation with buyers.

Ghost shopping woes

A recent CBC radio interview with two Ottawa business owners revealed the struggle for shops to stay in business because customers are “ghost shopping.” This is when a customer uses the services of a shop to check out a product and then buys it from another company online, usually at a lower price. I followed the slew of comments on the Facebook post related to the interview and I felt two emotions. I was happy to see many locals proudly supporting their neighbourhood shops and saying they always shop local and in store, but I also felt concerned – as the owner of a future online shop – that online shopping was getting somewhat of a bad reputation. Customers who shop online were sometimes being painted in a bad light. They’re lazy and only looking to save money. They don’t care about supporting local or buying better. I agree that ghost shopping sucks for business, but people aren’t bad for wanting to save money on a product.

The reality of progress is that those industries that don’t adapt get left behind. Imagine what Blockbuster would look like today if it had had the foresight to start renting videos online, before Netflix stepped onto the scene. It would probably still be a thriving business.

Nimble businesses

What can small businesses do? They have to be nimble. And believe me, I have yet to meet a successful business owner who isn’t nimble. It comes with the territory. Small businesses are adapting to this “internet of things” age and launching complementary online shops. They’re using social media shopping platforms to reach more online customers. They’re merging their offline and online presence by inviting online customers to visit in store on special occasions, and giving in-store customers online discounts. Online shops are taking part in pop-up stores and shop owners are working with bloggers to promote their businesses. The possibilities are endless. The point I’m trying to make is that yes, there are problems, but there are also solutions to help brick and mortar shops and online stores co-exist in harmony.

Sustainability only for the privileged?

When talking about supporting local, whether buying online or in person, we have to be wary of is this element of privilege. Local shops tend to sell more expensive items and not everyone can afford to support local, even if they want to. The same argument has been made for sustainable fashion. Lots of people comment on posts saying they’d love to buy responsibly but they can’t afford it. People often look down upon those who shop at Joe Fresh or the GAP, (I’m guilty of this) assuming that they do so simply out of laziness and indifference, but that isn’t always the case.

I often encourage people on a tight budget to shop second-hand or to shop less, save up money and only buy what they really need, less frequently. But maybe this is also naive of me to say. I can afford to save up. I can afford to buy second-hand and new, but many North Americans barely get by. How can we make shopping responsibly more accessible to the masses? This is something a lot of people in the sustainable fashion industry are trying to tackle. I could go on a rant about how the capitalist system has to change in order for everyone to be equal, but that’s for another post!

Keep shopping personal

The issue with ghost shopping is that small businesses are losing a lot of revenue to online competitors who offer the same product at a lower price. Even big box stores are feeling the e-commerce pinch and they’ve been forced to keep up by offering online ordering and in-store pick-up or by reducing their prices.

With so much online and offline competition, it’s important for small businesses to know their client base and to maintain their loyalty. Many people will pay more for a product from a local business not just to support local but also because they like the shopping experience. It’s not just a transaction, it’s an interaction.

Speaking of interaction, this Saturday, June 25, the Wellington West Business Improvement Association (BIA) is hosting Buy Canadian Day! This great initiative is timely for three reasons: Canada Day is coming up quickly on July 1; a few small businesses in the area have been victims of burglary in the last week or so and need support, and the recent CBC radio interview has made #supportlocal a hot topic in the city. If you head out to Wellington West this weekend, stop by your favourite shops, check out new ones and speak to owners. See what they think and keep the discussion going.

On my end, EITHER/OR will kick off with an inaugural collection made up of pieces from ten Canadian brands (seven in clothing and three in jewellery). All the jewellery is made locally and two of the fashion designers are from the Ottawa-Gatineau region. I made a point of sourcing the majority of clothing from outside of the city to make sure that the shop wasn’t competing with local boutiques. I know many local business owners personally and I wanted to complement what this city has to offer, not compromise it.

I’m also considering different ways to interact in person with potential Ottawa clients. My predicament is opposite to brick and mortar shops: how do I make things personal when online? How do I bring the online to offline? Lots to consider, but we’ll stay nimble to adapt to any changes that come.

2 comments

  • Jess | Rose & Fig

    Great post! A small business owner must, as you say, first and foremost remain nimble, adaptable, willing to learn. The best ones pair that with vision, but you can certainly make do without vision. It’s interesting to see the world of work changing from a “stable” nine-to-five (stability, of course, being an illusion), to more transient work. While stability may be a quickly evaporating commodity, I feel fortunate to be able to replace it with work that is, to me, more meaningful.

    Have you had a chance to check out Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything or Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism? Very informative and visionary for possible solutions to the future of work, the environment, and where they converge.

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