March 15, 2021
E-commerce boosts local purchasing in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec
A Quebec town encourages its local businesses to go digital during the pandemic
Digital technology is the way of the future for all industries in Quebec. Its development has led to the emergence of a true ecosystem that supports the use of digital tools to make a positive impact on the economy and facilitate innovation. This propensity for innovation is part of the DNA of Rivière-du-Loup: in 2016, the 20,000-people town was already ranking first as Canada’s best city for entrepreneurs according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
As part of the Quebec Collision Day, organized by the Community Solutions Network in partnership with Le Camp, we had a chat with Benoit Cayer, Rivière-du-Loup’s director of economic development. As part of his job, Cayer assists businesses looking to establish themselves in the region. He has both witnessed and driven the digital transformation that occurred within the town. This shift, which was accelerated by the pandemic, has profoundly changed the way the region’s small businesses operate.
A digital shift led by COVID-19
“Our local businesses were not prepared to jump on the digital bandwagon when COVID reared its head. Everyone was trying to reinvent themselves and find a solution to turn their closed businesses into functional ones. Time was of the essence,” explains Cayer. While some Rivière-du-Loup businesses embarked on the digital shift by updating their Facebook pages or creating a website, it soon became apparent that the primary challenge was visibility: “They had trouble making themselves known outside of their established networks. The first step in the transition was to let customers know that these businesses are open,” continues Cayer.
As unemployment surged—particularly in the hospitality industry, the restaurant industry and small retailers—the issue of visibility became a topic of reflection across Quebec. Opportunity came knocking when citizens from the Mauricie region established Solution Locale, a small-business directory platform. Meanwhile, the Government of Quebec, on the initiative of entrepreneur and businessman Alexandre Taillefer, developed its own business directory platform: Panier Bleu. Quebec retailers can use it to showcase their products and access tools to help them with their digital transformation. The platform also helps consumers find thousands of local businesses and their products.
To encourage businesses to join Solutions Locale and Panier Bleu, Rivière-du-Loup got organized: efforts were made to get the word out on the radio, contact businesses, and send out relevant documentation. Currently, almost one hundred small businesses in Rivière-du-Loup are listed on both platforms—a resounding success. “It helped those businesses take their first steps into e-commerce,” explains Cayer.
Shaping the digital shift around facilitating local purchasing
Which e-commerce platform should I use? How should I photograph my product? How should I manage my inventory? How should I set my price? All these questions and more were gnawing at the small business owners beginning their journey in the digital industry. While Solution Locale and Panier Bleu are beneficial initiatives in terms of providing visibility, they are not transactional websites. Cayer insists that businesses should be in charge of their own transactions. To ensure they are optimally equipped to manage every aspect of the sales process, the town of Rivière-du-Loup helps them develop their digital skills.
In spring 2020—in conjunction with the local development centre, the chamber of commerce and the Community Futures Development Corporation of the Bas-Saint-Laurent region—Rivière-du-Loup was able to set up a directory of tools and tutorials that can be accessed by small business wanting to implement e-commerce practices. This key development helps increase the technology and innovation capacities of Rivière-du-Loup residents, but also paves the way, if needed, for the development of a fruitful partnership between a retailer and a professional web designer. Giving business owners a better understanding helps them organize their thoughts and identify their needs in order to ensure they can make an informed decision, whether they want to build a website on their own or call on a professional. “Before, web designers would often come with ready-made solutions that were too ambitious and expensive for our SMEs. The latter were also not equipped to identify their own needs. As a result, the project would be doomed to fail. By adequately educating merchants on how to structure their web-building approach, we are creating a better relationship between business and designers,” says Cayer.
Customer experience: the focus of the future for small businesses
It goes without saying that people’s buying habits have been affected by the events of 2020. However, the changes in consumer behaviour we are seeing now are not a short-lived phenomenon. In light of these exceptional circumstances, Cayer is adamant that the development of customer-experience skills, whether in-person or in a digital environment, will be the saving grace of small businesses: “People in Rivière-du-Loup want to support local purchasing. The danger lies when customers are unable to find what they want locally, so they turn to heavyweights like Amazon. Working on customer experience is crucial to retaining their business.”
Frequenting a local business is not just about obtaining a good or a service; it is also about the buying experience, familiarity and human contact. This strong interpersonal component, which is characteristic of downtowns and main streets, is all the more important in the context of a pandemic, where human contact is limited.
If a customer walking into a brick-and-mortar store can expect to be greeted with a warm smile, enjoy a particular atmosphere or be offered product tastings, how can business owners adapt their practices to the realities of e-commerce? In addition to providing a pleasant, user-friendly web interface, merchants must demonstrate patience, attentiveness and flexibility. For example, while a small retailer may not have a wide variety of products, they can improve the purchasing experience of a customer looking for a specific product by offering to get it for them. “We want customers who go to these small businesses to want to come back—not necessarily because the product was of higher quality, but because they had an amazing experience,” concludes Cayer.
Virtual Collision Day
On March 17, Benoit Cayer attended the Collision Day organized by the Community Solutions Network in collaboration with Le Camp. The event allowed him to interact with people from other Quebec municipalities and share thoughts and questions on their common problems: “We were all affected by the pandemic and its consequences, and we all responded differently.”
Led by Evergreen, the Virtual Collision Days are matchmaking and capacity-building events that connect emerging technology companies with community leaders. Through peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and access to key resources, participants learn more about smart cities and create important connections to advance their community’s needs. For more information, please visit the Community Solutions Portal.