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Byron, left, and Dexter Peart, co-founders of Goodee.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

After more than 20 years in fashion and retail, and just 10 months after launching their newest venture, Montreal brothers Dexter and Byron Peart suddenly found themselves in the right place at a rotten time.

In March, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered the global economy and upended the retail industry, but created a boom in online shopping. Goodee, the business the brothers launched in May, 2019, sells housewares such as dishes, blankets, furniture and lighting and operates only online. Stuck in their homes during extensive lockdowns, people spent heavily refreshing their living spaces.

And after a wave of protests following the death of George Floyd caused people to rethink everything from how cities are run to how to support Black entrepreneurs, Goodee suddenly found a larger audience for the brands on its site. Twenty-eight per cent of its suppliers are owned by people who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour and make up 45 per cent of the site’s sales. Half are female-owned.

“We started seeing, immediately, a shift from the consumer side in their buying power and what kind of companies they wanted to invest in,” Byron said. “We’ve spent a lot of time being a little bit of anomaly, being Black-owned business entrepreneurs. In the fashion business over the last 20 years, that was fairly unique.”

From the archives: Online marketplace Goodee aims to balance living well with living sustainably

Goodee is an online marketplace of brands chosen by the Pearts – among them a basket maker in Ghana, a European company that makes children’s furniture out of recycled plastic toys and a Mexican glassblowing studio.

The twin brothers opened their first store, a boutique in Old Montreal called Want Stil, in 2000. They made their name bringing Scandinavian designers such as Filippa K and Acne jeans to the Canadian market.

In 2006, they launched Want Les Essentiels, a line of luxury bags and travel accessories, that later expanded into shoes and clothing. The brand is sold at retailers that include Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and luxury e-commerce site Farfetch.com. Five years later, they launched luxury store Want Apothecary in Montreal, which soon expanded to cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and New York.

In 2017, the Pearts decided it was time for their next venture, and sold their stake in Want to their business partners. (During COVID, Want Apothecary’s physical stores shut down permanently. The business was recently acquired by Montreal-based outerwear maker Quartz Co.)

Goodee has some big-name investors, including the founder of Farfetch.com, Jose Neves and his wife Daniela Cecilio; Searchlight Capital co-founder Erol Uzumeri; Club Monaco founder Joe Mimran; and Shopify president Harley Finkelstein. Last year the company raised $2-million to expand its team and fund further growth. In its second year of operation, Goodee is still small, with annual sales in the seven figures, according to the founders.

Twenty-eight per cent of Goodee’s suppliers are owned by people who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour and make up 45 per cent of the site’s sales. Half are female-owned.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The company is betting that a certain kind of customer has become tired of the so-called “endless aisle” of e-commerce giants selling mass-produced goods. Every product on Goodee is labelled with icons indicating its environmental or social impact. Currently the site attracts roughly 100,000 monthly visitors on average.

“They can go on these large marketplaces and get something delivered in three hours, it’s so easy,” Dexter said. “People recognize that they have this panoply of choice, but they want to make better decisions.”

Many consumers want to shop more sustainably. In a recent survey of 501 Canadians by Ernst & Young LLP, 61 per cent of respondents said they are paying more attention to the environmental cost of the products they buy.

But retailers such as Goodee still need to convince skeptical customers: About two-thirds of people in the E&Y survey cited concerns about deceptive marketing as a factor steering them away from sustainable products. Higher prices often charged for such goods were also a concern.

Goodee’s prices run the gamut from a $9 stone cup to a $3,000 set of pendant lights. Last February, Goodee launched a one-year partnership with Nordstrom to showcase some of its more accessible products, selling 100 items under US$100 in five U.S. Nordstrom stores and online. Goodee’s own site provides information about all of its suppliers in an attempt to build trust.

“I can’t think of any other [wholesale] customer that tells the story as well as they do,” said Gregory MacCarthy, founder of Ghana-based brand Baba Tree. It pays its weavers a 15-per-cent commission on each sale, on top of a flat fee for each basket and benefits such as medical coverage and payments for children’s education. “They are so smart in terms of design, the writing,” Mr. MacCarthy said.

Goodee currently sells products from roughly 60 brands in 30 countries. For small and mid-sized suppliers such as Baba Tree, which do not handle shipping, importing and warehousing, Goodee incurs those logistics costs. Other suppliers work with Goodee much more like a marketplace, handling their own shipping and paying Goodee a commission on each sale.

This has made the business complex: Goodee benefited from heightened sales during COVID. “The trajectory of the business changed materially overnight,” Dexter said. But, like other businesses, it is facing supply bottlenecks and inflated shipping costs.

And Goodee is still trying to grow. The site will eventually stock 100 to 150 brands, and there are still gaps to fill, such as in artwork and other decor. The site currently ships in North America only, with 78 per cent of the business coming from the U.S., but plans eventually to expand.

“Scale is hard on a good day, but being able to scale with the level of integrity and trust that they’re creating will be part of the key to them,” said Michelle Scarborough, managing partner for strategic investments at the Business Development Bank of Canada, which led Goodee’s most recent funding round.

The Pearts also have to compete in an extremely crowded e-commerce market. Getting the brand in front of customers was part of the motivation behind the Nordstrom partnership, and other collaborations the brothers say are in the works for next year.

“They exemplify how an independent retailer and curator can actually get the attention of the consumer, which is not necessarily to have AdWords all over the internet, but, rather, have a deep understanding of where your target customer is spending their time,” Shopify’s Mr. Finkelstein said. “You don’t necessarily try to compete with Walmart or Amazon. Rather, you find out who your niche is.”

The Pearts believe there are many customers who do not want to scroll through endless choices. “It’s just so much stuff,” Dexter said.

“If we could change the narrative around design and what good design is – where it comes from, and who makes it, and the faces and the voices behind it – that’s what’s making us excited right now,” Byron said.

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