Entrepreneur Dini Lamers would be the first to say that any brick-and-mortar store must periodically reinvent itself to remain relevant as consumer habits and tastes change.
But like many small-business owners, she found it a challenge to make the leap into a full-fledged online business, even though she knew it was her next logical step.
“It is the way of the future, there is no doubt about it,” Dini said. “Even if you are not shipping products, you just need to be out there. Buying online has become the new norm for many.”
Then COVID-19 struck and left her shut down for a full month.
“Sometimes, it takes a really good kick to realize you need to do something different or you’re going to get left behind,” Dini said. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve had to reinvent myself constantly to the changes that were happening.”
Dini & Co. is one of those local businesses that literally does operate on the Main Street of Small Town Ontario – 56 Main St., to be exact, in Georgetown (part of the Regional Municipality of Halton). The shop specializes in home décor, gifts and fashion and stocks the Annie Sloan line of decorative chalk paints. Dini also uses her surplus space to host a collective that features works from more than 30 local artists.
All that came to a screeching halt in the spring thanks to pandemic response measures. Dini had in late 2019, however, qualified for a $2,500 Digital Main Street Digital Transformation grant after learning about the provincial program through her local BIA.
Digital Main Street is a province-wide training and grants program that offers funding as well as free education resources and even visits by a Digital Service Squad, to help small business owners boost their online presence and digital marketing. To qualify, applicants must complete a mandatory online training session and develop a Digital Transformation Plan with specific activities and milestones to demonstrate how they will put the funds to good use.
For Dini, COVID-19 left her with no more excuses to delay putting her plan into motion. She took advantage of Dini & Co.’s shutdown period to invest in a new computer, new software and digital marketing courses, including an iPhone photography course to improve the visual aesthetic of her website.
In addition, Dini redeveloped her website on the Wix platform and took advantage of its e-commerce module, as well as its e-marketing and payment processing features. This enabled Dini & Co. to relaunch as an online business well before Dini could reopen her physical front door.
“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish with $2,500,” she said.
Dini’s Annie Sloan line quickly proved to be a hot seller online, as people took advantage of stay-at-home measures to tackle hobby and home improvement projects. The big advantage for Dini is that she doesn’t have to pack and ship—her supplier takes the orders placed through the Dini & Co. website and drop ships at a flat rate from its order fulfilment facility. Dini would like to find other home décor and gift brands that also provide this service so that she can continue to grow her online business without incurring the costs to package and ship herself.
Dini had already worked to build up her social media presence long before she had any capacity to transact with customers online. But the additional steps she took thanks to the DMS program allowed her to boost Dini & Co.’s search engine rankings by 80 per cent in just a matter of weeks.
“I am sure there are many people who had never shopped online now saying, ‘I can do this,’” she said.
Even with restrictions now lifting, Dini reports that foot traffic into the store remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Having that e-commerce presence is critical to offset lower volumes of in-person customers.
“Revenues have returned to pre-pandemic levels, and I am confident that they will increase because Dini & Co. now has an online store to complement our brick and mortar,” Dini said.
Her advice to other business owners struggling to adjust to the new reality of the pandemic is “take advantage of anything you can.” There are many free resources online and through their local BIA which business owners can take advantage of to acquire new skills and become an e-commerce retailer.
“Brick-and-mortar stores that pull themselves through this will be the ones that sat down and reinvented themselves again,” she said.
Dini’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 Digital Main Street is taking applications for Digital Transformation Grants and Digital Service Squad Grants again. Applications for Digital Service Squad Grants close October 31, 2020 and applications for Digital Transformation Grants close November 30, 2020.
For information and to apply, go to www.digitalmainstreet.ca/ontariogrants