With the onset of COVID-19, the cry went out through retail: pivot! Pivot! PIVOT!
Companies without much of an online presence rushed to get online. Those with an existing presence worked to offer more and draw eyeballs to their pages.
Makers and businesses tried not to get lost in the wide, wide web. But how to catch some of the wave of new consumers who were coming online and looking to international platforms and mega suppliers?
Jovana Randjelovic works in architecture and is based in Toronto. She was looking at an Excel list being circulated titled “Not-Amazon.com,” where a list of local options was being compiled for the creation of an online platform—a showcase of local options for shoppers. She thought it would be nice to have one for St. John’s.
“Prior to COVID I was in Newfoundland every month and prior to that I was living in Newfoundland for some time,” she told Atlantic Business Magazine.
She teamed up with friend Irwin Davidson (a working artist in the city also known as Winnie Churchill). The two collaborate on creative projects under the name Two Capricorns.
They’ve since launched Mug Up for the Holidays! (mugupfortheholidays.com). The page includes names and links, to help reduce searches through Google, Facebook, Instagram and other big engines. The new website for local gifting is being updated daily.
“This one wasn’t for us,” says Davidson. “It was to see how much we could help make this thing a little bit easier.”
Randjelovic says they wanted to give “amazing makers, vendors and creatives,” a boost in the pandemic, from vintage clothing curators you might never stumble upon to Black-owned businesses flying under the radar. “So for instance you’ll have Pearl’s Hair Boutique or Bellasul Nails, or in the food and drinks area you have Ronald’s Delicacies. You know, just these really, really fantastic endeavours,” she says.
A provincial platform
Originally from Random Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ashley Fayth Vardy was living abroad for over 12 years. She and her family returned home in early 2020, just in time for the major winter storm dubbed Snowmaggeddon.
In addition to her work as a children’s author and singer-songwriter, she planned to open a brick and mortar store on the island—a plastic-free bulk shop also stocking local goods. But the decision was made to hold off as COVID-19 arrived.
It was a frustrated hunt online for a Valentine’s Day gift that inspired her own pivot, and a decision to build a substantial platform online, to feature makers, vendors, and artists.
Outport (outportnl.ca) has now launched. The site is still growing but offers consumers the ability to search by region, category and then more specific options like “eco,” “gluten free,” or “subscription.” An annual fee, with different payment options, covers the service, including curation of photos, help with profiles and social promotions.
Vardy thought the site could be of particular use for people outside of the Avalon Peninsula, where there can be fewer areas with collections of small businesses and fewer stores like Home on Water, the Bee’s Knees, The Pantry or Posie Row in St. John’s (to name just a few in the city) where people can readily find the work of a collection of local makers and microbusinesses.
The site also allows for postings for fundraisers and events.
It is updating all the time and Vardy is looking to add new functions in 2021 to allow Outport to become a one-stop shop where you could find a craftsperson but also see a video of them working, or pay for a music lesson that’s then delivered through the site or a host partner. She’s consulting with web developers.
She is also actively approaching people without an existing online presence who she can help bring online. “Models are changing and they’re changing really quickly. And I think it’s kind of stressful as it is for a lot of small businesses. But a lot of small and microbusinesses, the thing that they do have up their sleeve right now is they’re able to adapt really quickly and really creatively; and if they’re able to do that, there’s actually a lot of opportunities to be had,” she says.
Lynn Guppy began offering a bit of help on buy-local gifting through Guppy’s Gift Ideas, launched in 2016. The idea came out of her simply noticing a not-uncommon lack of knowledge of what businesses were out there, where they were and what could they really do for you.
She began taking requests for assistance. “Say you were looking for a gift for somebody, I would ask you what they’re into. So they’re into travel, then I would find gifts that were specific to that person,” she says.
Guppy would produce a list of gift options, a client would select the preferred option. She’d then arrange for the order, pick-up, wrapping and delivery as preferred. It was all completed for a service fee, not unlike the fee you might pay on a food order for delivery.
She recalls one time when a family member came looking for a gift for a couple who had their first date at the Fluvarium in St. John’s. “I commissioned a metal art piece of the Fluvarium for them. So it would be a special wedding gift for them,” she says.
Guppy put the service on pause following the death of her father in the fall of 2019 and decided not to restart until COVID-19 is less of a concern. However, she has continued to moderate business-to-business contacts.
She launched the Facebook group NL Handmade & Homemade, for business owners and makers. Requests to join the closed group shot up with the arrival of COVID-19. More than 150 new members have joined since mid-March, bringing the total as of early December to 785.
Guppy says some existing, large platforms like Etsy can allow you to search by location, but also platforms like the existing Guide to the Good, The Neighbourgood and even newer additions like Mug Up for the Holidays! and Outport are all positive supports in challenging times. They are also a big help to consumers getting frustrated or lost in the online fog.
Beyond just connecting with the customers they had, she says the greater accessibility online can do a lot. “Having these platforms accessible after COVID is where I think the focus should be for sure,” she says.