Pandemic restrictions send retail e-commerce to new heights and local businesses innovate in the disrupted sector.
Whether it is visiting your favourite specialty store just around the corner or leisurely wandering the rows of vendors at the farmer’s market, shopping locally is a great way to treat oneself while supporting the community.
Following the efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020 which prevented us from accessing these businesses, a few innovative Saskatchewan e-commerce platforms have emerged that are helping to keep local producers and consumers connected and safe during these challenging times.
From February to May last year total retail sales fell by 17.9 per cent, however, retail e-commerce sales almost doubled within that same period. It was amidst these early lockdowns that Mike LePage, scrambled to order a last-minute present for his fiancée and came up with a concept to create a digital platform and delivery system for struggling local businesses.
He brought his idea to life by co-founding Local House, Saskatchewan’s largest online shopping mall where Saskatoon and Regina businesses can sell their goods after signing up as merchants. LePage says the service is like SkipTheDishes for “brick and mortar” retail and in addition to same-day delivery his platform offers additional publicity to its partners.
“For a lot of the merchants that are on our site they’re smaller businesses who already have their own e-commerce website and come on to Local House to have a kind of secondary store,” LePage says.
Local House launched last December and in addition to providing a multi-faceted marketing campaign for its merchants LePage says this retail ecosystem benefits small businesses because of the additional customers gathered by an aggregate forum of stores.
“Just like if you were shopping in a [physical] shopping mall for shoes you might still stop at a few stores along the way, so an online shopping mall is what we are creating for our clientele, that secondary location and exposure via e-commerce,” LePage says.
Although LePage has found success launching his own e-commerce marketplace, as a digital innovator he is focussed on the improvements coming to Local House as an upcoming inventory integration will allow the website to automatically sync its stock with merchants’ levels in real time.
As retail e-commerce sales reached a record $4.8 billion in December 2020, major retailers such as Walmart and Amazon have revealed their plans to continue expanding their online fulfilment service capabilities. Despite its colossal competitors, Local House currently has an advantage by already offering same-day delivery services in the two major Saskatchewan cities.
“Being focused on local we’re never going to be able to offer the sheer amount of products that Amazon offers,” LePage says. “But if we can offer a product while allowing the consumer to support local at the same time, and if they can get it faster, then yeah, I believe we have a competitive advantage.”
LePage highlights that convenience and instant gratification heavily influence online shoppers’ purchases, but he also believes that the superior customer service offered by buying from local retailers is another benefit of the platform.
“If there’s an issue you don’t have to go through all the steps with major online retailers because you can phone the merchant or ask them questions and it’s more of a personal relationship at that point in time.”
While Local House is creating a new virtual shopping mall in response to the pandemic, the Regina Farmers’ Market (RFM) has also been innovating in the e-commerce space by attempting to bring something as age-old as the marketplace to the digital world.
Before the RFM was able to reopen its in-person seasonal market last summer, executive director Holly Laird says the lockdown conditions is what allowed for the staff to modernize and digitize the business by launching a separate online store that is open year-round.
“We definitely had not planned this, it’s something we had dreamed about doing and offering to our customers and vendors, but COVID sort of gave us the push to do it and the time.”
The online store operates on a weekly schedule where orders are made for contactless delivery or pickup. Because Laird previously worked as a vendor selling her delectable yet perishable Nosh Artisan Edibles, she sees the value the e-commerce system is providing sellers.
“If you think about a baker, they don’t necessarily know how much they’re going to sell at a market, so they might only sell a portion of what they prepared. But with this system we tell them exactly how many items were ordered and that’s what they bring.”
Laird says this means the RFM is playing a new role packing and distributing products and collecting payments, however, having a separate entity from the seasonal market has allowed the organization to grow by hiring new employees and leasing additional space to run the online store.
Beyond improving the structure of something as traditional as the marketplace and strengthening the RFM’s connection to its community, Laird believes the online store will also allow the non-profit organization to compete with grocery chains offering home delivery as well.
“We have customers at the farmer’s market who have been around for decades and have relationships with our vendors and if something is preventing them from coming to the market this opens it up for them and people are able to access their favourite local products again,” Laird says.
 “Retail E-Commerce and COVID-19: How Online Shopping Opened Doors While Many Were Closing, Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00064-eng.htm
2 Retail E-Commerce Sales (x 1000), Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=2010007201