Saving Main Street: How A Business School Is Helping Toronto SMB Retailers

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If there’s a playbook for Main Street’s migration to digital, Toronto’s Schulich School of Business is authoring a very effective chapter.

It starts with a public-private partnership, has a great pizza story in the middle and ends with a feisty attitude in the face of a devastating pandemic. In an interview with Karen Webster, Chris Carder, co-director of Entrepreneurial Studies at Schulich School of Business, outlines the story of how innovation can become teamwork.

In 2016, an organization called Digital Main Street was set up by the City of Toronto as a business improvement project for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Working in the tech space at the time was Carder. He and the city’s then Manager of Entrepreneurial Services Chris Rickett formed an essential team that taught Main Street businesses about technology platforms and how to onboard them quickly and efficiently. Carder next moved into the academic space at Schulich, bringing with him an attitude that a crisis is a massive opportunity. Then, the crisis of a lifetime unfolded.

“I brought my team together within the Schulich startup program, and I said, ‘Look, we've got an opportunity to both do some incredible things to show Schulich’s talent and to show what we're capable of,’” Carder said. “And at the same time, we have a lot of students who have lost their summer placement positions because of all the uncertainty happening. And I said, ‘I have an idea. What if we gave ourselves a challenge that in the next 30 to 45 days we would create 50 paid jobs in the middle of an economic collapse with no funding and no business model except what comes out of our mouth in the next two hours.’”

What came out over those next two hours was an addition to Toronto's Digital Main Street program in which Schulich students came to the table to help Main Street businesses catch the digital shift. Carder then called Shopify and his old friend Chris Rickett (at this point the city’s director of COVID-19 Business Mitigation and Recovery), who was already developing his own Digital Main Street enhancement strategy with a group of top technology firms. A quick partnership was born, and the students could then help retailers get onto the Shopify program and generate precious revenue.

Next, Carder developed a plan to unleash the students, who have digital marketing and product management skills, to the retail community along with partnerships in their belts from Google, Facebook and Shopify. Fifty students were chosen, and the city and offered a grant (alongside the federal government) to pay for all 50 positions. The full group of partners and students brought a complete solution to digital Main Street, and the project was opened to stores, restaurants, bars and artists.

Having started on Monday (May 25), the City of Toronto’s ShopHERE program will be able to get retailers up and running on Shopify, execute advertising and promotions on Facebook and Instagram, and get up to speed on search best practices on Google. All of the partners have been adding extra credit packages to the program.

SMB Toronto recovery digital

But not everything is digital in bringing retail back. Creativity still counts, and that’s where the pizza story comes in. One of the local shops in Carder’s neighborhood was trying to come up with a strategy that would draw people to their business, which is half bakery and half pizza. To attract attention and traffic, the restaurant made a giant pizza slice that could fit everything kids could possibly want on one pizza. It even designed a huge triangular box for the pizza slice and came up with toppings that kids would love. A whole line of dessert pizzas has been created with Nutella instead of tomato sauce. Some of them have chocolate chip cookies. One pizza variety even has grilled cheese sandwiches on top of it. It’s a marketing initiative, a publicity generator and an Instagrammable moment all in one, Carder said.

“I asked the people in the shop, ‘Did you get an agency to do it?’ Carder said. “They said the family and some of our staff … came up with it on their own. … So, these are the people that are doing these types of things all over the place. Someone told me a story yesterday on the phone about a restaurant, and as they're making all the food, they're having it all displayed in three open door refrigerators in the giant front window of the restaurant. So, it's like you're actually window shopping the food.”

It has been mandatory for each of the 50 students to announce that they are working with Digital Main Street and write a post promoting the program. Carder said the comments coming back from friends, fellow students and businesspeople thanking them has made them feel “like a million bucks.”

Carder is also aware that as with the creative pizza slice, physical touch and brick-and-mortar presence is going to be important to help businesses survive this pandemic.

“Our goal is not to replace anything,” he said. “It's not to shut it down and have it all become digital. It's to do two things. One is to help them to survive because they need this now. And two, it's helped to develop a resilient multi-dimensional business model that's in place for the next thing, whatever it might be.”

And then there's the attitude. It's not retailers that are in trouble according to Carder, it's the pandemic that has met its match.

“… if you are a city from here to Boston to New York or to New Orleans, you should be asking yourself the question: How are you going to how to tackle the recovery?” he said. “How should I be engaging, and could I be engaging to start up the tech community, the academic innovation community and the students of that city and bring them together? Because normally you wouldn't turn to those groups of people. You would look for big, big solutions from big government or big corporations. We’ve never had to do these things. We’ve never had a crisis. But this crisis has never had to face what we’re doing either. So, we're all inspired to do incredible things, and it's amazing what's happening.”



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