In March, when COVID-19 forced small businesses to spend a dime to survive, Mike McKenna was less unlucky than most.
The pet supply store he and his wife Jennifer ran called Little Chief and Co. was not even a year old, but suddenly customers were no longer allowed in.
But at least they stayed open. For essential services like pet food stores, it was online ordering and curbside service or nothing.
One thing McKenna had going for him, however, was timing.
His store on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines, he said, is “built around social responsibility” with an emphasis on Canadian and environmentally friendly products.
Shortly after it opened in April 2019, it got a website – “very stripped down, very basic … but from a website perspective, we haven’t really pressed the gas.”
“Our idea was to take a year, to really develop our activity and the first year to relaunch the site” with changes.
Then, in December, he was among the first owners to start working with the city’s economic development office on a program to help small businesses create or improve their websites.
Even then, his goal was to grow the business. The website was at the bottom of her priority list.
March has arrived: “Obviously COVID hit and it immediately changed our plan. “
Overnight, it has become vital for small businesses to have an attractive and reliable online presence.
McKenna did, but many didn’t.
“You can’t really blame a business for that, because most of all right now they are struggling to survive,” says Samir Husika, downtown development officer at the economic development office at St. Catharines.
“Especially small businesses, they have to be the owner, they have to operate the business, they have to market it, be their own IT and accounting departments.
“They have to be the jack-of-all-trades… it’s very difficult to be able to do all of that and at the same time build a website. “
Last fall, the City of St. Catharines began working with Digital Main Street, an innovation hub, to meet with small business owners and help them establish an online presence. There was federal funding.
In June, as Niagara’s economy grappled with COVID-19, the city joined ShopHERE.
Launched earlier in Toronto, the program used $ 1 million from Google to expand Digital Main Street services across Canada, providing access to programs like Shopify to help owners build their own online stores.
The Husika office worked not only with businesses in St. Catharines, but also as a sort of central hub, assisting traders in the southern Niagara BIAs.
“In reality, any business located, say, in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Port Colborne – across Niagara – can access Shopify,” he said. “They can actually go to the website and access it themselves. “
Owners have short-term access to Shopify, as well as training and support. There is no cost to them.
To be eligible, businesses must have fewer than 10 employees (or 25 for restaurants).
“Once COVID-19 hit, it became absolutely vital for the survival of the business” to be able to show off their wares, take orders and make sales online, Husika said.
At Little Chief and Co., McKenna said he relied on website sales early on during COVID-19.
They still represent around 30 or 35% of its business, even with Niagara in Stage 2 of the reopening where customers are allowed to re-enter the store.
“Honestly, if it hadn’t been for this program and Shopify… we’d be done if we hadn’t had a working online presence,” McKenna said.
To apply, go to DigitalMainStreet.ca/shop here.