A 19-year-old Wilfrid Laurier University student has created a business that helps small business owners compete with big box stores.
Joshua Ethier comes from a small rural community and he saw the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on local businesses.
He took a walk downtown in the area he grew up in and he noticed all of the local businesses he grew up around had shut down.
"Honestly. it was kind of eerie," he said, "no lights, no signs of light, nothing. Earlier in the year, these businesses were full of customers and now it was a ghost town. At that moment, the full effect of the pandemic hit me. I decided I was going to do something to help these businesses and I went home to search out products that I could purchase from these businesses. I settled on three products that I needed and needed to go to three different stores to get them. The entire process took me about two and a half hours," he said.
Ethier said that small businesses lack two specific key factors that big box stores have.
"Small businesses aren't able to compete with the efficiency factor offered by big box stores, and secondly they didn't have the same resources to compete with these big box stores," he said.
That's where the idea of OptLocal came from.
"I founded the company to directly target that issue," he said, "we're fronting businesses with the marketing resources needed to compete with those big box stores without costing them a cent out of their pocket and we're offering consumers an efficient way to shop local."
The way that it works is that OptLocal is a marketplace for retail businesses and it's free to sign up.
"OptLocal works one of two ways for businesses. If they already have a Shopify website, we can simply integrate their inventory with the OptLocal marketplace and we do everything for them so they don't need to. We then send them emails when their product sells with a packing slip and a shipping label. Other than that, we handle everything. Marketing, customer support, returns, you name it."
Ethier said the biggest difference between his marketplace and others that are on the market currently is that they don't charge businesses any listing fees and "we don't charge businesses anything unless their product sells."
He said that the only way OptLocal makes money is through their sales fees. He said the response to the website so far has been pretty good.
"The big thing that we've realized is a lot of small businesses have been bombarded by various companies offering various solutions to increase their sales. Once we sat down with the customers and heard how we were different, they became really excited specifically that we don't charge them anything up front and they only pay when they get results."
He said that because small businesses have been looking for a boost in sales throughout the pandemic, they knew they had to do something ahead of the holiday season that is upcoming to compete with those big box stores.
"When we go through the onboarding process with customers, we have a really honest conversation with them about realistic expectations," he said, "we expect our customers to hold us accountable if we aren't delivering on the level of service they expect but we are very confident businesses will see a strong boost in sales once they join OptLocal."
Ethier said some small businesses he's currently working with didn't know what they would initially do to run their physical stores as well as their online stores.
"A lot of the businesses were members of the Digital Mainstreet Initiative. They got their website, they got online and a little bit of marketing credit to start them on their way but as soon as the credit dried up, they really didn't know what to do and they were already too busy running their physical stores to handle an online store. That aspect kind of slipped and they haven't seen the same sales in the current state of the pandemic so they were still missing out on sales. We're going to help them with all aspects of their online business so they don't have to. This is a long-term solution," he said.
He said that he received help from Laurier's Startup Lab to make his idea come to fruition.
"I had the idea for OptLocal and went to Startup Lab and they've helped me a little bit along the way," he said, "OptLocal is part of numerous innovation clusters that have allowed us to leverage a lot of mentorship from experienced business owners."
Ethier said that this idea has been more than a year in the works and he plans to launch OptLocal November 8th.