Push to help small business prompts flurry of local shopping directories

When Ali Haberstroh took home a full-length shearling coat she found at a vintage store recently, the Toronto woman couldn’t stop bubbling about it.

“It is the most fabulous item I’ve ever purchased for myself and if it was anywhere else, it would have been like a bazillion dollars,” she said of the $38 purchase made at Expo Vintage.

Haberstroh wanted to help friends stumble across great products and support small businesses too, so in her spare time, she set up a shareable Google Docs list of independent and local companies at not-amazon.ca.

Within hours, it spread like wildfire across social media, inspired friends to create Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver versions and prompted local tech whiz Baker Baha to offer his help in turning them all into a proper website.

Haberstroh had plenty of company. Directories, Google Docs lists and social media accounts brimming with links to small businesses needing support have sprung up in most major cities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While they are meant as a small gesture to help in a tough time, some believe they can have a big impact.

“I’ve seen a lot of people saying, ‘I just bought three items from two stores’ on the list,” said Haberstroh.

“There’s an impetus now to just put everything towards small businesses and it feels like more than ever, it’s in the city’s hands to keep them alive, given what they’ve been through this year.”

Growing push

A survey the Canadian Federation of Independent Business conducted in August showed 82 per cent of Canadians are worried their favourite local businesses will shut down.

That possibility is quite real. The CFIB has estimated that 225,000 businesses across the country may permanently close due to COVID-19. Even those that survive could be paying off debt for years to come, the organization warned.

Christie Pinese isn’t sure how her Rose City Goods store made Haberstroh’s list, but she’s grateful it did because she noticed people are shopping mostly in their neighbourhoods or at places they can get to without public transit or long car drives.

An appearance on a list might expand that radius or help someone nearby find her.

“The more awareness that people have about the shop, the better,” she said.

She has spent much of the pandemic relying on online sales, but worries about how independent retailers can compete with big box stores that have been allowed to stay open in Toronto and nearby Peel Region while small vendors that don’t stock essential goods must close.

“If we’re not supporting the small businesses, when this is all over, all we’re going to have left is Walmart and Costco and I don’t think anybody wants that,” Pinese said.

Amy Robinson has similar worries.

She started B.C. small business support group and directory LoCo about 10 years ago and it’s now experiencing renewed interest amid COVID-19.

Robinson is seeing more people decide to shop completely local this holiday or soliciting independent store recommends from friends online.

According to an Ipsos survey commissioned by Google in the summer, 66 per cent of Canadian consumers will shop more at local small businesses this holiday season.

“It’s interesting because our message has always been that you need to shop with local businesses, so they will survive, and now I feel like people really get it,” Robinson said.

The pandemic has made us more nostalgic and emotional when we think of small local businesses disappearing, Joanne McNeish says. (Ryerson University)

That shift was triggered by people seeing a physical manifestation of how our lives and the economy are changing when they walk along their main street and notice store after store shut down, said Joanne McNeish, a Ryerson University marking professor.

While people used to dissociate companies from warm fuzzy feelings, the essential work they do has made us more nostalgic and emotional when we think of them disappearing, she said.

“It’s almost like a loss of a good friend you always thought was going to be there, until suddenly they weren’t.”

The pandemic has also made the extra challenges some groups face more glaring and hard to ignore.

Small businesses owners, for example, didn’t have the money or resources to quickly roll out the marketing campaigns, fancy websites or delivery offerings that big box stores did when COVID-19 hit.

Entrepreneurs who are women, Indigenous, racialized or have a disability struggled even more because of chronic underfunding, less mentorship and more child-rearing responsibilities.

“People with disabilities are often having to be creative or create employment opportunities for themselves because they haven’t necessarily been given the same opportunities as the mainstream,” said Mayaan Ziv, the Toronto-based creator of a Google Doc sharing international small businesses run by people with disabilities.

“People don’t think about this portion of the population often enough.”

While people are now eager to use lists and help small businesses like the ones Ziv highlighted, it’s hard to predict if the trend will outlast COVID, McNeish said.

While some may revert to patronizing big box stores if they are the cheapest or most convenient option, McNeish said if people develop small business habits now “then maybe those habits will stick.”

“But we won’t know that for two years.”

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