By Leo Valiquette
Be prepared to shift gears quickly – this has been the saving grace for many small businesses across Ontario during the pandemic. The Island Jar on Manitoulin Island is no exception.
We first profiled The Island Jar back in May 2019. This whole-food market and café is located in Little Current – Manitoulin Island’s gateway community. As a Digital Main Street (DMS) grant recipient, Island Jar owner Aline Taillefer didn’t want to just boost her own online presence, but also that of the many farmers, crafters and artisans across the island.
Manitoulin Island sees a lot of cottagers, boaters and other tourists during the summer months, many from the U.S. This traffic is vital to support the island’s economy, but after Thanksgiving, it all goes quiet. With DMS funds and support, Aline and her team launched Manitoulinmarketplace.ca in March 2019 to soften the impact of the off-season.
DMS is a training and grants program available through local BIAs that offers funding and free education resources to Ontario main street small business owners like Aline to boost their online presence and marketing.
Manitoulinmarketplace.ca is an e-commerce website that offers a selection of foodstuffs, crafts and art from producers around the island, available to be ordered and shipped anywhere in Canada. The intent is to “bring Manitoulin to the mainland” and supplement that summer-time traffic with online sales and promotion in the off-season.
Online strategy pays off
“It really took off with the 2019 holiday season,” Aline said. “We found ourselves shipping a lot of local products off island.”
And then the pandemic struck.
At a time when island businesses would be looking forward to that busy summer season, they found themselves faced with a lockdown of indeterminate length and border closures that meant the loss of all those seasonal visitors.
As a grocer, The Island Jar could have remained open through the lockdown that saw other businesses forced to close their physical locations, but the decision was made to keep the physical store closed.
“We just felt, with the small team that we have and wanting to be safe for our staff and our community, that keeping the store closed to the public was the right decision to make, and we have been able to make it work,” Aline said.
Make it work they did.
Within a matter of days in March, an e-commerce site intended to offer only a selection of island products was expanded to include as much of the grocery product inventory from The Island Jar as possible, as well as products from other island vendors, for online retail sale. The team also launched a delivery service for the island. The goal wasn’t to make all these additional goods available for shipment off island, but to provide island residents with a safe and convenient way to acquire what they needed.
All of this was possible thanks to the foundation Aline and her team had already built with DMS and Manitoulinmarketplace.ca.
“We are thankful that we were able to get the DMS funding the year before and get this all set up when we did,” Aline said. “It was really fortunate timing.”
The tourism season on Manitoulin Island did gradually pick up steam through July and August 2020 following Ontario’s Stage 3 reopening, despite the absence of U.S. tourists and the cancellation of events such as fairs and festivals. The overall volume of visitors, however, remained lower than usual.
Residents eager to support local business
To keep expenses down and maintain safety, The Island Jar’s brick-and-mortar location remained closed through the summer. Instead, the team offered takeout and prepared food for delivery and pickup.
Aline and her team also used the e-commerce site to help island farmers concerned about how to get their products to consumers. They set up a subscription box service, where visitors could purchase produce boxes or meat boxes filled with stock from across the island.
“That was very well received, and it sold out with very little promotion,” Aline said.
Through it all, The Island Jar retained its year-round team of two full-time and one part-time employee and just reduced the number of summer hires. By focusing on the online business and keeping expenses down by not opening the brick-and-mortar store, Aline was able to reduce expenses in tandem with the reduction in business.
“I think through all of this, there has been a strong push to support local businesses,” she said in late August. “Anyone with a connection to the island has been buying art, jewellery, gift certificates, etc. to support local businesses in the hope they will be able to make it through this pandemic.”
Aline remains focused on what needs to come next.
“Our goal long-term is that even when we reopen the physical store, we will maintain our expanded online presence and perhaps develop a blended approach,” she said.
Next on the agenda, plans to host a virtual artisan market for the 2020 holiday season to replace the one The Island Jar would normally host on its own premises.
Aline’s story is just one example of the almost 15,000 main street small businesses across Ontario that have taken advantage of Digital Main Street. Program funding has been renewed and DMS is taking applications again as of July 2020 and will close November 30, 2020.
For information and how to apply, go to www.digitalmainstreet.ca/ontario