By Gord McIntosh, Digital communications consultant
Dennis Van Staalduinen thinks that adding digital to traditional bricks and mortar is a new beginning.
In fact, the Executive Director of the huge and trendy Wellington West Business Improvement Area (BIA) just west of downtown Ottawa sees nothing but growth ahead.
That’s because bricks and clicks can go together to grow a customer base, with a little help from an innovative partnership program between the Ontario BIA Association (OBIAA) and the Province of Ontario.
Digital Main Street provides support and grants to main street small businesses, municipalities and business associations to help main street retailers grow their customer universe by promoting and selling online. The program originated with the Toronto BIA Association and the City of Toronto. Because of its success there, the Ontario government has funded its rollout across the rest of the province.
Wellington West BIA is one of those business associations that has received a grant through Digital Main Street to pay for a digital tools expert to help BIA members get online.
The BIA’s strip of 70 restaurants scream date night. The eclectic mix of storefronts, ranging from Aurelius Food Co. to something called Brew Donkey, will tempt anyone to get lost for a few hours exploring specialty stores from the exotic to the funky.
The vacancy rate is very low, and the BIA is well supported by the neighbourhood’s residents. It is now among the cool places to be in Ottawa for tourists and those living elsewhere in the city. But Van Staalduinen knows that retailers need to expand their customer base to thrive.
“If you rely on bricks and mortar only, you’re cutting yourself off from a lot of business,” says Van Staalduinen.
Take the case of Aurelius, which started by wholesaling to top restaurants with very superior product imported from Italy. It now has a storefront. So that requires broadening the customer base — reaching out online across the city and beyond.
Maker House sells more than handmade furniture and home items. It is also a gateway to a virtual community where you can meet the people who made what you buy, share certain values and want to make the world a better place. You need a big digital footprint for that.
Thinking bricks and clicks means going further these days. Just having a web site doesn’t cut it anymore, Van Staalduinen adds.
“People are doing more of their shopping without leaving their browser. They will make their decision just from what’s listed on Google.”
Google My Business is an emerging tool to help retailers get noticed fast by potential customers on an increasingly crowded digi-sphere. That’s the template that pops up on the right side of screen during an online search to provide access to pictures, maps, directions, and details of a business without having to visit the website. Van Staalduinen says it is essential in today’s business climate.
A key takeaway from Digital Main Street is that there is no reason why a bricks-and-mortar business can’t join the digital revolution and thrive. In fact, bricks-and-mortar businesses must get online for the sake of having a future, he adds.
Digital Main Street provides main street small businesses with digital-readiness assessments, recommendations for quick wins, information and resources and $2,500 grants to qualifying businesses to bring on digital tools and techniques.
BIAs, Chambers of Commerce or municipalities can apply for $10,000 Digital Service Squad grants to set up free help to main street small businesses to expand their circle of customers fast. The Digital Service Squads are Google Verified, so these are geeks who know what they are doing.
Needless to say, a priority for the Wellington West BIA, where most of the stores are owner-operated and chain stores are few, will be to continue to grow its unique value proposition both on the street and online.
Over time, says Van Staalduinen, bricks and mortar will evolve into “electronic businesses with a storefront.”
See you on Digital Main Street.