When Diana Horqque designed her first foam play couch less than two years ago, she never imagined she would have her products in Indigo stores across Canada.
Near the end of 2019, Ms. Horqque learned she was going to be a mother and started researching childhood development and parenting advice. She was intrigued by the Montessori concept of creating spaces that nurture self-reliance and exploration. She discovered foam play couches, which look like a regular couch but are made of durable, stackable foam blocks that allow kids to create, play and jump.
Ms. Horqque, who has a background in product design and textiles, partnered with four university classmates to develop a prototype. Their Laval, Que.-based company, Go Coconut, started selling couches last December.
While trying to get her baby to sleep one night, Ms. Horqque saw a social media post about Indigo’s Mini Marché initiative, inviting Canadian small businesses to pitch their kids and baby products to be sold on Indigo.ca and in select stores. Ms. Horqque applied, and after being invited to pitch, Go Coconut was one of 12 small businesses selected.
Indigo is among a group of large companies, including Sobeys and American Express, who have jumped in to support and promote small local businesses.
“Indigo was always looking for innovative and exclusive products to bring to our customers and with COVID-19, they were difficult to find, in the absence of the usual trade shows and fairs,” says Gail Banack, vice-president of IndigoKids and IndigoBaby. “We also saw the struggles that businesses were experiencing. We wanted to do our part to help.
“Initiatives like this catapult small businesses into awareness levels they could be trying to achieve over years. I think it may also help customers see us in a different way, having that connection to small Canadian businesses.”
Ms. Horqque says partnerships like this can help larger companies because small business owners interact more closely with their customers. “It is way easier for us to design products that satisfy customers’ needs, because we are directly connected to them and know them very well,” Ms. Horqque says. “I think there is also demand from shoppers for local products. They want to know where their products are made and want to support their communities. It’s nice to know I may be helping my neighbour.”
Gary Hughes, local development manager for Sobeys in Alberta, said the company also wanted to take extra steps to support local businesses during the pandemic. The Alberta Box rolled out last fall with 22 locally-produced products for $49.99 with items including cotton candy, steak spice, energy bars and craft soda. Another box followed, along with similar ones in Ontario and Manitoba. Alberta is releasing another box next month with 24 locally sourced items.
Mr. Hughes says the box is a way to get local products into customer’s hands, as a major part of its local program — in-store sampling — was halted due to the pandemic. “I think having local products sets Sobeys apart by bringing regionally relevant suppliers into our stores,” he says. “Small, local companies are so innovative and able to pivot compared to some national brands. I can talk to a small company today and within a few weeks, have the product in our stores.”
Mr. Hughes says for a local supplier, who may only sell at farmers’ markets, initiatives like the Alberta Box provide increased exposure and give them the opportunity to sell seven days a week.
Ashlee Steinhauer, founder of Calgary-based Worthy, a jam and preserves company, is excited her jam will be part of the next Alberta Box. “There will be 3,000 boxes going out. That is 3,000 opportunities for my product to get in front of somebody who may not have seen it before,” she says.
“People like to go to farmers’ markets because they can get unique, locally-made items. It’s a hot trending thing to buy local, as it should be. For Sobeys to showcase that they’re supporting local, I think, will be beneficial to them as well. It’s what customers want.”
Jebril Jalloh, founder of Toronto-based high-end streetwear brand Get Fresh Company (GFC), says this type of collaboration is the way of the future. “This is how you build your city. Cities are only as cool as the businesses in these areas. I think these brands knew this before, but now they’re more at the mercy of the community. Business has changed, the economy has changed, and people are understanding this. You have American Express spending millions of dollars putting Shop Small billboards all over North America.”
Mr. Jalloh was featured this summer in the American Express Shop Small campaign — on billboards throughout Toronto and in a directory of small businesses. During the campaign, American Express offers incentives to cardmembers to support local businesses, such as earning a $5 credit when they spend at least $10 at a participating business. Shop Small launched in Canada in 2013 to shine a light on the important role small businesses play within our communities and to encourage cardmembers to support local.
“Shop Small, for us, is really a movement — and it’s ongoing. At its core, it’s about backing our communities,” says Kerri-Ann Santaguida, vice-president and general manager of Merchant Services with American Express Canada. “We want to do our part to encourage Canadians to make shopping small a habit, to get out, support local and continue returning to the businesses that help our neighbourhoods thrive.”
Mr. Jalloh says small businesses can also help big businesses thrive. “If a big box store invests in helping smaller guys grow, it works for both of us. You’re drawing a whole other crowd who maybe wouldn’t even go in there and they end up respecting these brands more,” he says. “Everyone roots for the underdog, so we also root for the company that’s putting on for the underdog.”
Mr. Jalloh was 23 when he started GFC in 2011. His flagship Toronto store sells its own brand and features other Canadian designers. When the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Weekend was in Toronto in 2016, GFC was chosen as the official NBA pop-up shop and the company has done several collaborations with the Toronto Raptors. Mr. Jalloh pays this success forward by helping other smaller businesses.
“I come from a neighborhood in the city, where there aren’t really any examples of entrepreneurship of someone who looks like me,” he says. “I always had a dream of being an entrepreneur and having a store. But growing up, it was hard to believe your dreams could come true. When my dream came true, it was important for me to reach out to other people and say, ‘I’ve got this platform, come, let’s do this together. Let me give you this opportunity.’ "