Online Retail Innovation is Alive and Well in These Canadian Success Stories…
By: Lyndsie Bourgon
Traditional retailers are operating in a high-stakes market. It’s very difficult to open a brick-and-mortar store in an economy still reeling from the economic downturn and recession of just a few years ago, and there’s plenty of competition.
Thus the evolution of the “retail-preneur”. In Canada, these are innovative business owners who are merging the worlds of retail and e-commerce and forming successful businesses that can compete in today’s global economy while still basing themselves in a traditional service.
“A retail-preneur is someone who has their finger on a niche market, and it’s something they’re passionate about,” says Leah Chevallier, a retail consultant in Calgary. “But they have to eat, sleep and breathe that one niche topic.”
For Chevallier, 17 years ago, that was the baby market. She started off her business small by importing specialty baby products that weren’t being marketed in Canada yet. That morphed into a few kiosks and, eventually, five stores, all in the children’s clothing and product realm. Now she’s a consultant, advising retailers on starting and keeping their businesses in the face of the Internet.
Chevallier says the hardest thing for a traditional retailer to do is make the shift to an online presence, which is why many simply don’t. “You have to be very good at maintaining inventory, be on top of what’s selling and what’s not selling, and keep your finger on the pulse of trends…a lot of retailers simply become complacent in their business model.”
It’s a common problem, but now new businesses are launching to make up the slack where those local retailers fall. Shopcastr, a Toronto-based website, is one of them. Shopcastr provides a kind of online inventory of the products in local stores. From price to image close-ups, it’s a place where smaller businesses can market their goods without the pressures of maintaining their own web business.
Bricks and mortar retailers, local ones in particular, are facing competition where they didn’t use to, because their new competitors are global companies—they’re fast moving and increasingly mobile,” says Judy Sims, one of Shopcastr’s co-founders. “And consumers have adopted this culture of the discount, and they’re used to dealing with companies through social media and buying things they want online.”
Other businesses have taken cues like Shopcastr, and provide unique online retail experiences. Montreal-based Frank & Oak is a men’s clothing retailer that is highly curated. They provide subscribers with a newsletter that has just a few items of clothes that they’ve tailored to their audience. Likewise, Vancouver-born Indochino provides custom suits online after shoppers input their measurements.
For Sims and Shopcastr, most of their valuable launch advice came through time and discussion. They credit the business incubator MaRS for providing insight, as well as the entrepreneur think-tank Sprouter. “A lot of start-ups rush out of the gate creating a product they think is really cool, and then no one wants it,” warns Sims.
So local businesses are being “hit from all sides,” says Sims. Businesses like Shopcastr make it easier for them to find the sweet spot in the middle.