Canadian Manufacturing

‘Not as easy as it looks’: Small businesses share what it takes to move online

Roughly 152,000 small businesses shifted to boost e-commerce between March and November

January 11, 2021  The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Kiki Lally has never met a mess she was afraid of.

The Calgary entrepreneur launched craft studio Pinnovate in the middle of an Alberta recession and has seen her fair share of sticky fingers across hundreds of art classes, birthday parties and camps her business has hosted.

So when COVID-19 measures triggered shutdowns last year, Lally tackled the crisis the way she knew best: with paint, yarn and a bit of creativity.

She launched DIY Delivery, an online website selling craft kits, but quickly discovered set up wasn’t cheap or as simple as a few clicks.

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“It’s not as easy as it looks — All of a sudden we’re learning e-commerce and inventory and creating kits and creating videos and a YouTube channel,” Lally said.

“Even the logistics of delivery sounds so simple until you’re actually finding all these nooks and crannies in your city and making mapped out plans.”

Lally’s experience offers a window into some of the challenges Canada’s 1.14 million small businesses have faced as they race to embrace e-commerce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said one-third of small businesses across the country offered online sales as of November. Roughly 152,000 small businesses shifted to boost e-commerce between March and November and one in five independent companies told the advocacy organization they expect to increasingly rely on that avenue to survive.

While customers have breezed through online shopping, delivery, takeout and curbside pickup, small business owners have been working around the clock, spending big bucks and retooling their entire operations to keep it all together.

Some have had to revamp products and menu items to ensure they don’t arrive damaged or cold and soggy upon delivery. Others have toyed with virtual reality to offer digital fittings for apparel and many have dabbled in coding, social media and online payment systems.

Catherine Choi, the owner of Hanji Gifts in Toronto, has been busy with photography.

When COVID-19 struck Canada, her company already had a website to sell goods, but she estimates only 15% of its products were on it.

Choi bought a lightbox and between getting her daughter set up for virtual school and processing curbside pickup orders, she started snapping the store’s inventory.

“It takes a long time,” she said. “We still probably have less than half our products online right now.”

Choi has tried to focus on adding items from artisans and manufacturers who provide their photos for her to use because it cuts down on the work.

She’s also zeroed in on items that are easy to ship like cards, stickers, washi tapes, socks and craft paper. Bulky and fragile products like ceramics will come later.

Getting items online has been a time consuming task because Hanji does not have a traditional payment system and uses old-school paper ledgers and binders to track inventory at its three locations.

Choi moved Hanji’s warehouse closer to home so she could work late into the evening on processing orders, but that hasn’t solved every problem.

“Someone may want a card and there’s only one left and it’s only online inside our warehouse in Scarborough, so we have to figure out how to get that card to the location they want to pick it up from,” said Choi.

Dealing with so many changes and stressors at once has entrepreneurs feeling “overwhelmed,” said Darryl Julott, a managing lead at Digital Main Street, which helps companies digitize operations and is backed by the City of Toronto and the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas.

“I talk to business owners and they’ll say we are trying to build a website and every time we talk to a company, they overwhelm us and we don’t get answers to our questions, so we don’t know what to do,” he said.

Digital Main Street, which was founded in 2014, is trying to eliminate some of that guesswork and make it easier and less confusing for companies, who are realizing their livelihoods now need “bricks and clicks.”

In recent months, the organization has helped many entrepreneurs set up accounting software, email systems and online stores. The biggest obstacles they notice involve bookkeeping or where owners live in relation to their business, said Julott.

Many companies are still using paper ledgers and any sales or adjustments they make require them to head to their office or store, which can make online operations tough and time-consuming, he explained.

While logistics and retooling a business can be a bother, Lally said the hardest part of the shift online is maintaining hope as the pandemic drags on.

“Just like everybody else in Canada we didn’t know what this (pandemic) was and what it was going to be and what the long-term ramifications of it were,” she said.

Most of her staff were prepared to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it took to launch delivery. One worker waived her salary and volunteered at the studio instead.

Regulars even offered to drop off the studio’s kits, but most customers don’t even realize how much work goes into a transformation, said Lally.

“It always looks easy when someone else is doing it, but it’s really not.”