Toronto businesses getting digital help after being forced to compete online due to COVID-19

Some Toronto business owners are getting help with e-commerce as government rules are forcing them into the digital marketplace — and competition with established online brands.

Chinatown BIA helping business owners bridge digital divide caused by pandemic

Della Zheng is assisting businesses in Toronto's Chinatown that are struggling under Ontario's COVID-19 restrictions. ( Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Some Toronto business owners are getting help with e-commerce as government rules aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 are forcing them into the digital marketplace — and into competition with established online brands.

The Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA) has hired two students to assist local businesses with setting up online sales and digital marketing strategy.

A study conducted by the BIA found that area businesses have been struggling to establish an online presence. Many have been unable to build web pages or even set up basic business profiles on platforms such as Google or Facebook.

"They're not on those platforms. They rely mainly on word of mouth," fourth-year U of T student Della Zheng said in an interview. 

Zheng is one of the students now working with the BIA. She started by surveying Chinatown businesses for their online presence.

As a 24 year-old who does most of her shopping online, the results were a reality check.

"More than half of them don't have a Google My Business profile online. And that's really surprising to me," she said.

Language barrier

Making matters worse, the Chinatown area, centred on Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West in downtown Toronto, relies heavily on foot traffic and in-person sales, which has become heavily restricted in Ontario, especially now that the entire province is under a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order.

As well, according to the BIA, Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking business owners looking to get their shops and restaurants online are also confronting a language barrier in the mostly English-speaking world of e-commerce.

The organization hired students who speak all three languages.

According to the Chinatown BIA, many businesses in the area are struggling under COVID-19 restrictions and require assistance to establish their brands and sales online. ( Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Tonny Louie, chair of the Chinatown BIA and owner of Grossman's Tavern, says sales at local businesses are down between 60 and 100 per cent.

"All the businesses are down. People are suffering, especially the restaurants, and there's no end in sight," Louie said in an interview.

It was feedback from owners, Louie said, that pushed the BIA into helping them get online.

"We have a fabulous group of staff members that are reaching out to businesses to tell them how to do it," he said.

Digital Main Street Grant

It begins with setting up a basic online presence for a business, Zheng said. She is also helping them use the Shopify e-commerce platform.

Zheng then takes 360-degree digital photos at the businesses that can be uploaded online for virtual browsing or just so customers can get a sense of where they're shopping.

A 360-degree photo of Toronto's KL Kitchen. The restaurant received support from the Chinatown BIA and the Digital Main Street program to bolster its online profile. (Google/Digital Main Street)

The BIA is also connecting business owners with the Ontario government's Digital Main Street Grant, which can provide up to $2,500 to help businesses adapt to new technologies and embrace digital marketing.

"Our government recognizes that small businesses impacted by necessary public health measures will require support and additional resources to adapt to new ways of doing business, such as greater e-commerce capability," said Rebecca Bozzato, spokesperson for Vic Fedeli, Ontario's minister of economic development, job creation and trade.

The province is also assisting small businesses with other programs, including one that provides one-on-one tech support, as well as a grant to purchase personal protective equipment.

In a statement, Fedeli's spokesperson also added that the new Ontario Small Business Support Grant will provide up to $20,000 to eligible small business owners to help them through the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic and government restrictions.


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