It’s been 14 years since entrepreneur Cindy Vanderstar opened her first retail business in the small town of Port Rowan, on the shores of Lake Erie in Norfolk County, Ontario. Now with four locations in the area and plans to expand into a true “chain” with six, Cindy has realized the need to reinvest in her online presence and add an e-commerce component to draw customers at all times of year.

Port Rowan is one of those quiet towns that’s being “discovered” by a growing number of vacationers and retirees eager to escape the big city grind of Toronto and Hamilton. In fact, Cindy first came to the area after her mother moved to a local retirement community. The need to provide residents with more shopping and leisure options was obvious. Today, Cindy operates two premier shops for fashion and home décor in Port Rowan – Cashmere & Cobwebs and C-Squared Home Décor – as well as sister locations about 35 kilometres away in Port Dover.

But walk-by traffic alone isn’t enough to sustain a business in communities with only a few thousand residents. By Cindy’s estimate, 80 per cent or more of her customers are still from out of town – cottagers, campers and day trippers who have come to wander local stores at their leisure. That means her business is highly seasonal.

Early on, Cindy saw the value of building relationships with her clientele to keep them coming even in the winter months. She has built a strong Facebook presence and an email subscriber list of 2,000. But she realized she needed to do more.

In the fall of 2019, Cindy learned about the Digital Main Street Digital Transformation grant program through her local Chamber of Commerce and Norfolk County Tourism.

“I thought, ‘finally – something for small businesses,’” she said. “I’ve always been actively involved with the local Chamber and the Board of Trade and would often ask what there was to help a small business drive its digital footprint.”

By the time she decided to apply for a grant, Cindy had already launched a new website. But she still needed to add that e-commerce component to boost her sales beyond in-store transactions alone.

“Sometimes, you just need a kick in the pants,” Cindy said. “I’ve been thinking and talking about adding e-commerce to my site. When the grant opportunity came along, it made me commit to 2020 as the year to catapult my online store.”

Cindy expects that an online store will help to boost sales for her physical locations, increase her in-town and out-of-town customer base, and drive more business that will allow her to hire more staff, which will ultimately benefit the local economy.

She has decided to use Shopify for her online store and use the grant to help her ramp up:

  • Roll out in March with Shopify Plus, which can support all four of her stores
  • Invest in training for herself and staff on the e-commerce platform
  • Purchase a new computer and tablets for mobile point of sale

While the grant will cover initial costs related to the digital roll-out of her online storefront, Cindy will also be busy organizing the non-digital aspects, such as her packing and shipping operation.

Never one to shy away from hard work, Cindy nonetheless was surprised by the amount of effort required to qualify for a Digital Main Street grant. The application process included mandatory training workshops.

“I can appreciate the grant program only wanting to invest in those businesses that have proven they have a sound plan,” Cindy said. “Some of what the workshops covered did validate what I was already doing in terms of social media and different types of marketing, but there is of course always something new to learn – you can teach an old dog new tricks!”

Before she became an entrepreneur, Cindy worked for 15 years as a buyer for a major Canadian retail chain, travelling the world to find the perfect fashions. Her collective experience has left her certain that retailers of all stripes must update and refresh themselves every couple of years to remain relevant to consumers. In addition to having a strong online presence, this includes offering a unique experience in-store that may include scents, music, lighting or food.

“Show your passion,” she said. “Dedicate the time and effort and your customers will appreciate it and refer your store. People want value and something unique – you can’t constantly be offering a sale.”

Cindy’s story is just one example of how more than 2,000 main street small businesses across Ontario took advantage of Digital Main Street’s Training and Grants program. The Digital Transformation Grant is no longer available (ended December 31, 2019), though you can still access Digital Main Street’s complimentary digital assessments, virtual training and in-person workshops: 

Watch this testimonial of how Digital Main Street’s resources helped a storefront small business boost their digital performance and overall business growth.

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