For many small towns in Ontario, business gets tough after the tourists and cottagers have gone home. But now there’s help from Ontario’s Digital Main Street initiative.
The small communities on Manitoulin Island are a great example.
Meaning “Spirit Island” in the Anishinaabe language, Manitoulin is packed with people enjoying recreational activities and the many unique shops from the May long weekend to Thanksgiving every year.
But after Thanksgiving the tourists are gone, and the island’s bustling business spirit goes into hibernation for the winter.
The owner of The Island Jar whole food market and café in Little Current is doing something about it with a boost from an innovative partnership program between the Ontario BIA Association (OBIAA) and the Province of Ontario to help Ontario’s “main street” small businesses go digital.
Vanessa Glasby, Assistant Manager, Aline Taillefer, Owner, and Sarah Sabourin, Manager, outside The Island Jar whole food market and café in downtown Little Current, Manitoulin Island
Aline Taillefer is determined to help Manitoulin Island artisans and food producers thrive during the off-season. If the world stops going to Manitoulin after Thanksgiving, there is no reason why island businesses can’t go to the outside world — virtually year-round.
The idea is not only to boost The Island Jar’s sales but also those of other island businesses and their naturally-made products. In other words, she wants to promote the full Manitoulin brand to a much wider audience.
Manitoulinmarketplace.ca went live on March 31.
Digital Main Street provides free support and grants to “main street” small businesses to help them boost success by using digital tools and techniques. That includes helping them 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.
The new Manitoulin site is a virtual marketplace for island-made products, locally-grown food, and a link to a unique lifestyle in which folks look out for one another, care about the environment and live long healthy lives.
Thanks to a Digital Transformation Grant from Digital Main Street, Ms. Taillefer was able to cut six months off the time they needed to build their e-commerce site.
“It kick-started us to get it going,” she says.
“We’ve built the site ourselves, but the other businesses have contributed content etc. and we’re billing and shipping from us. We used the grant — it was substantial — to cover the cost of the platform for a year, design the branding and get a laptop to manage orders.”
She’s confident the new site will get plenty of support because of an entrepreneurial spirit that is everywhere on the island. “Since there aren’t big industries other than tourism, people have to be entrepreneurial. They have to be creative to stay on the island.”
And that includes finding ways to help retailers survive the long off-season.
Now that the Manitoulin site will be helping to smooth out the bumps in yearly business, The Island Jar is looking at a long-term revenue split of 25% in winter and 75% in summer. In the future, the site could one day offer local island experiences, Ms. Taillefer says. But first things first.
And with the help of Digital Main Street, Manitoulin Island retailers featured on Manitoulinmarketplace.ca can better weather the cycles of seasons and tourists to live their collective mantra, “Eat well. Do good. Feel better.”