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Julie Malian, pictured here in her Toronto home, sells vintage and rare books through her side business, Bellwood Books. In-person and online marketplaces help her connect with customers.Lucy Lu

One of the most talked-about retail stories of the pandemic era has been the exponential growth of the ecommerce marketplace. Sites such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy brought in huge profits in 2020 and 2021.

It’s a boom that makes sense, with customers wary of shopping indoors and looking for a one-stop, online experience from the comfort of home.

But alongside the biggest players, another group has emerged: local, niche marketplaces created to give a boost to small businesses during tough pandemic times. In Toronto, there’s Toronto Market Co. and Black Owned Toronto; in Vancouver, there’s BC Marketplace; in Calgary, there’s Local Shops; in Ottawa, there’s Ottawa Artisans.

And while consumers have certainly benefitted – gaining easy access to a diverse array of goods from local vendors – there’s another big beneficiary of this local marketplace trend: women business owners.

“A lot of our vendors are small businesses run by women; even if it’s a larger company, they’re the ones running the show,” says Melissa Zuker, founder of Toronto Market Co., which launched online in June 2020.

“We’ve seen a lot of new businesses, many of them starting in the pandemic, many of them being side hustles from women who’ve left their jobs in the last year, either by choice [or not], so it’s been great to help foster their growth.”

Spaces for women to flourish

These marketplaces can be important for women business owners because they formalize the informal advice, resources and networks that are typically available to white, male business-owners, says Sonia Kang, Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion and associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Women entrepreneurs become the beneficiaries of what Dr. Kang calls the “invisible curriculum.”

“Within marketplace settings, there’s an invisible set of rules, a tacit understanding of how things work, of where to get resources,” she says. “That information – for example, knowing where to apply for a loan or what kind of business license you need – is invisible to people who have not traditionally held power. That’s why spaces like these, that [women] have created for themselves or that accommodate their needs, allow women to flourish.”

For working mothers, marketplaces have been a particular boon, making it easier for them to juggle care-giving duties and business responsibilities.

Ms. Zuker notes that some of the women vendors on her site have kids at home or full-time jobs, so the virtual element is key for them.

“This is women supporting women,” she says. “We can take care of the marketing and manage the sales, we can make it easier. We have three vendors who had babies in the last month! Some stayed online, some took time off, and that wasn’t a problem.”

That’s significant as it’s women who lost work more than anyone else during the first six months of the pandemic alone. Once schools closed and the world shut down, it was often mothers who chose to leave the workforce and be primary caregivers.

Greater flexibility

With so much to balance, it’s no surprise women make up a significant portion of the gig economy. According to a 2018 JP Morgan Chase & Co. survey, if we set aside the transportation sector (including ride-sharing sites such as Uber), women make up a greater share of income-earners on digital platforms. On Etsy alone, 85 per cent of sellers are women. The advantage, of course, is the flexibility.

Lilian Umurungi-Jung is the founder of Vancouver-based Mumgry, a natural nut butter business geared towards moms and a Toronto Market Co. vendor. She says marketplaces have been important in her business because she is a busy mother herself.

“Mumgry wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for marketplaces, we try to participate in them as much as possible,” she says. “Whether they are in-person or virtual, the opportunity to be surrounded by other makers and discovered by shoppers is why we choose to stay.”

Ms. Umurungi-Jung found that, with the help of marketplaces, word of mouth is far faster and more effective.

“As a woman, one of my biggest concerns is always, “Am I being seen and heard?’”

As many of these women-led small businesses function as side hustles, marketplaces grant them the space and time to build a following and credibility in order to scale up.

Such has been the case for Julie Malian, owner of the Toronto-based pop-up Bellwoods Books, which sells curated vintage and rare books. Ms. Malian (whose day job is social worker) runs the shop on evenings and weekends through her website and Etsy, and at physical marketplaces, including the St. Lawrence Sunday Antique Market and Parkdale Flea.

“The organizers of these markets work hard to foster supportive spaces for their community of vendors,” says Ms. Malian. “Folks that attend the markets know they are supporting small, local businesses. The markets bring me so much joy and are my favourite spaces to connect with the community.”

Cohesive vision

Many of these marketplaces, both online and in-person, have a cohesive vision and focus on socially-conscious products, with like-minded vendors finding space to connect with the customers they are looking for.

For example, Ms. Malian’s archives specialize in women writers, and subjects include feminism, gender studies and counterculture. Inspired by the U.K.-based Second Shelf, whose aim is to “gender balance” the rare book trade, Ms. Malian’s hope is to bring greater representation to those rare books by women that have fallen by the wayside.

That mentality is a smart one; according to the 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study, more than 90 per cent of millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause, and “are prepared to make personal sacrifices to make an impact on issues they care about.”

As Dr. Kang explains, “There is an appetite for more of that story because people feel so disconnected right now, they want to know who is behind the business, to connect with a community and to find products that help them better express those interests.”

This story has been updated to correctly reflect Dr. Sonia Kang’s title.

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