Continuous investment in online marketing and e-commerce pays off for Campbellford businesses.
By Leo Valiquette
What are farmers to do when an aging dairy concern needs substantial reinvestment and a home-based craft business is bursting at the seams?
For Tom and Rose-Marie Kerr of Campbellford, Ontario, the time had come to sell the farm and buy a vacant store front in town.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the barn,” Tom quipped. “It just happened, and it’s evolved.”
Indeed, it has. Twenty years later, Rose-Marie’s original home-based sewing and artistic rubber stamp and scrap-booking business has grown into Frog’s Whiskers Ink. She hosts classes for fellow crafters and also designs custom stamps that are sold and distributed across North America, in Europe and even down to Australia. The couple invested in vulcanizing presses and cutters so that Tom can manufacture Rose-Marie’s original stamp designs himself.
Finding the right retail mix
The couple knew that Campbellford, a community of about 3,500 on the scenic Trent-Severn Waterway, didn’t have the critical mass of local customers to support that business alone. They considered what other kind of retail was lacking in the town and decided to add a bookstore to the premises – Kerr’s Corner Books.
The two businesses have grown to complement one another. When it’s an off-season period for Frog’s Whiskers Ink, it’s an up period for the bookstore, and vice versa. The store has also become the town’s Canpar/UPS shipping station.
Both businesses have been online with an e-commerce storefront from their early days. But any web presence needs a periodic overhaul to ensure it will hook consumers. The tools for promoting a business online and the running an effective e-commerce site are also always changing.
Time for an upgrade
In 2019, the Kerrs took advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their web presence and their digital marketing skills. They applied for a Digital Transformation Grant from Digital Main Street (DMS) after learning about the program through the Trent Hills Chamber of Commerce.
To qualify, applicants must complete mandatory digital training modules and develop a Digital Transformation Plan to demonstrate how they will put those grant dollars to good use. The program includes free workshops and webinars, and complementary visits from a Digital Service Squad.
“They were very good to work with, nothing was too much trouble and no question was stupid, which is great when you’re a bit above your head and trying to learn,” Rose-Marie said. “It was really a joy to work with them.”
The Kerrs learned, not just how their web presence should evolve, but how they could also make more effective use of digital channels such as Facebook and email newsletters to promote their businesses. They even had grand plans to have authors in-store for live video broadcasts.
Ontario’s State of Emergency in March 2020 in response to the pandemic changed all that.
Since the physical store also served as the town’s Canpar/UPS shipping station, it was deemed an essential business and allowed to remain open. Still, the volume of foot traffic from local customers declined steeply. Rose-Marie could no longer host her in-store classes. Orders for stamps through their distributor dropped (in fact, Tom has since lost contact with some of those retailers in Europe, leading him to suspect their businesses have permanently closed). The summer tourism season also took a big hit, with the loss of American boat traffic on the Waterway.
Best way to tackle the ‘stay safe’ protocols
The Kerrs’ continued investment in their online presence has been crucial to keeping their business going. This included help through DMS to take Rose-Marie’s classes online and to launch Book Chat video discussions.
“Online was the next best way to tackle the ‘stay safe’ protocols,” Tom said. “Now all our bookstore inventory – games, toys, cards and puzzles – as well as all of our 3,500 stamps and 1,000 or so associated supplies are online. We are selling more online, doing more local delivery and shipping orders to customers more than ever.”
Regardless of how the Kerrs have adjusted, it’s still far from business as usual. They are working longer hours with less cash flow to show for it.
“Customer buying patterns have just changed,” Tom said. “As much as you may want for things to go back to ‘normal,’ it’s never going to go back. It’s going to reset to something else and that is going to become the ‘normal’ – just like the reset of the automobile versus the horse.”
For any small business owner, change is always the constant, Rose-Marie added.
“You are always somewhat in charge of your own normal,” she said. “No business is what is was or has the same products on the shelf that it did 20 years ago. Part of being in retail at all is making your own trends. I think that we are going to survive – we have already survived all sorts of things.”
The Kerrs’ story is just one example of the more than 15,000 main street small businesses across Ontario that have taken advantage of Digital Main Street.
Program funding has been renewed through a $42.5-million investment from FedDev Ontario and an additional $7.45 million from the Government of Ontario. These government partners have come together with the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Communitech, Invest Ottawa and the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to expand the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital as a response to the impacts of COVID-19. Digital Transformation Grants applications opened again in July 2020 and must be received by November 30, 2020.
For information and how to apply, go to www.digitalmainstreet.ca/ontariogrants