British Columbia

Vancouver's Dressew one of many small businesses thrust into 21st century by COVID-19

Like many retail businesses in Vancouver, Dressew closed its doors on March 18 when the province declared a public health emergency. More than a month later, the store has re-emerged online — much to the delight of its loyal customers. 

Pandemic closures force businesses into online marketplace as they rush to adapt

Store owners David McKie, left, and his father Roger McKie, are pictured inside their store Dressew Supply in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Until last week, David McKie didn't have a website for the downtown Vancouver fabric store he co-owns, Dressew. 

The popular shop has done brisk business since it opened nearly 60 years ago, and McKie just never got around to building a website — let alone developing a digital sales platform. 

"We are just a small family business," McKie said. "We don't have committees or departments — there's just us. So we just kind of didn't have time."

Like many retail businesses in Vancouver, Dressew closed its doors on March 18 when the province declared a public health emergency. More than a month later, the store has re-emerged online — much to the delight of its loyal customers. 

"It's been great," McKie said. "It's been super, super busy." 

Dressew Supply has been in business since 1961 and is a mainstay for many in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Experts say Dressew is just one of many small businesses in Canada thrust into the 21st century, quickly learning how to create and manage an online presence so they can survive. 

Marc-David Seidel, an entrepreneurship professor at the University of British Columbia, says in times of great upheaval small businesses have to adapt quickly. Luckily, he says, in many ways small businesses are better suited to make quick changes than larger enterprises. 

"It's a big advantage actually — they're much more adaptable," Seidel said. 

Large businesses are often centrally managed, Seidel says, and have complex systems in place. Smaller ones are often more in tune with their customers' needs. 

Supporting other businesses

Such was the case for Dressew. 

After it closed and boarded up its windows in March, McKie and a handful of staff still provided pick-up orders for a few customers, including nurses and other health workers who wanted to make masks and other personal protective equipment.

But an increasing number of customers pleaded on the store's Facebook page for online orders. McKie says he wasn't just hearing from hobbyists with a lot of extra time on their hands.

"Many of our customers have businesses of their own and they need to buy stuff from us so that they can earn an income," he said. 

So McKie did what so many small businesses have done in the past few weeks — they opened an account with Canadian e-commerce darling Shopify, which has recently surged in value as the country's most valuable business. 

'Uncharted territory'

Darryl Julott, senior manager with Toronto-based non-profit Digital Main Street, which helps small retailers build an online presence, says small businesses are learning to adapt but they face a few key challenges — a lack of time, resources or knowledge. 

Julott says small businesses have a glut of services and information to sift through when they transition to offering products online.

"It's scary — it's uncharted territory," he said. 

Dressew offers pickup through a hole cut into the plywood that boards up its front entrance. The store says it's planning to offer shipping soon. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But he says providing business information online can be as simple as contacting Google to make sure details like updated store hours and curbside pickup are listed. 

It's not just sales that businesses are losing out on when they don't have a digital presence, Julott says. What many retailers don't realize is that by not being on digital platforms like social media they're missing out on engaging with their customers. 

No going back

Luckily, that wasn't the case for Dressew.

McKie says he was able to connect with a few of his regular customers who run their own websites and were more than happy to help out.

In the end, it only took Dressew a couple of weeks to get its online store set up. McKie says he and his staff are still learning — they're 200 orders behind and only have a fraction of their stock online —​​​​​ but they're trying to be transparent and honest with their customers. 

But now that the cat is out of the digital bag, McKie says there's no going back. 

"I mean, with the reaction it's gotten I'm not sure we'd be able to stop." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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