Back in April, while sitting at home like everyone else, I watched local business shutter their stores and restaurants with sadness and frustration. With limited resources and near zero foot traffic, many small businesses couldn’t survive. PPP loans and charitable donations can only carry these businesses so far.
This pandemic was the final nail in the coffin for many small stores who for years have been struggling to keep up with online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc. Small businesses, with their tiny market footprint, cannot compete from an SEO standpoint, nor from an awareness perspective. Customers just don’t think about shopping directly on a store’s e-commerce site, because they don’t know it exists or it’s not on the forefront of their minds. It’s just easier to tap the Amazon app on your phone and order that toaster or a quick gift for your two-year old niece’s birthday.
Small Businesses will be affected well past the holiday season
COVID-19 will likely affect businesses throughout the rest of the year and into the holiday season. After the pandemic, what will the landscape look like for small towns? Will there be vacant storefronts? Less tourism? Yes.
So back in April, I started wondering if there was a way to help the local stores and restaurants in my area. Could local stores sell gift cards that could be given to essential workers as a form of appreciation? To test the viability of my idea, I built the beginnings of Card Boon and called a bunch of restaurants and shops in Saugerties, NY to sign them up.
Card Boon launches and doesn’t stick
I launched Card Boon in late April as a platform for multiple businesses to sell gift cards. After a couple of months, I noticed that the site was barely being used. My assumption was that the urgency to support essential workers was waning as people began settling in to the new normal.
Card Boon wasn’t catching on as well as I hoped. Even though the original concept seemed ineffective, the idea of helping local stores still weighed heavily on my mind. It seemed like the thing that stores needed most was to sell more products and be able to sell to customers even when they physically couldn’t reach them.
The obvious solution is for these stores to simply sell online. Approximately 67% of small businesses have web sites and a portion of them have e-commerce sites. The problem with independent e-commerce sites, is that shoppers need to move between one site and another in order to do a lot of shopping. The experience is time-consuming and disjointed.
As mentioned earlier, the convenience of shopping on Amazon is huge because shoppers save time by using one site that gives them all of their options. Big box stores and the likes of Amazon make it too easy for many shoppers to go elsewhere. These competitors are starving small-town boutique shops and depriving the shopper of the “local” experience.
A revelation and a needed pivot
With this set of new realizations, new questions emerged. What if I helped stores by giving customers a better way of shopping products? What if you could shop a whole town of stores from home… from anywhere? Could small businesses work together to help grow their local economies?
I developed a hypothesis that local stores could benefit by being brought together into one marketplace. As a group they are stronger and more able to leverage each other’s cross-promotion possibilities.
As it is, stores are mostly located in busy downtown areas, because owners know that foot traffic from other businesses will bring them business and exposure. Shoppers stroll a street, enjoy a bite to eat, meander down sidewalks, take in scenery, and do some shopping. The allure for shoppers is to experience the town’s vibe and numerous options that might fit their buying mood. Shop owners will often recommend another store to a customer in order to help out another business owner. Card Boon is creating this experience virtually for shoppers.
Customers can shop a town, store or products
With my new awareness, I pivoted Card Boon to include physical products that could be sold and picked up locally or shipped, added the ability for richer store profiles, and included social community groups of customers and stores.
Now on Card Boon, customers can shop a town, shop specific stores or browse products from all stores. For store owners, artisans and galleries, this is an opportunity to be a part of a “local” marketplace that presents their businesses and products in a single marketplace, and increase exposure to customers looking for an easier online shopping experience.
Stores drive business to each other
Card Boon stores can benefit from each other’s traffic, just like they already do when someone walks down a street and shops one location and discovers another one nearby. Business owners can cross-promote and make referrals to each other.
Each store has prominence on the site, which means products are not faceless products. Stores can build profiles to show their vibe, what they specialize in and be connected to their social media platforms. They can also be a part of a local town group, which not only allows customers to shop an entire town, but gives owners an opportunity to network with one another and build up a local economy.
A single small-town marketplace emerges
From a customer standpoint, shopping local shops is now easier. Items can be added to their carts from different stores and they can checkout in a single transaction. Shipments are made directly from each vendor, or customers can pick select products up locally if they desire. Shoppers on Card Boon support local businesses and towns.
As Card Boon expands beyond the upstate NY area, new discoveries will be made about how to best serve both customers and small businesses. In the meantime, please share your thoughts or this post!