From IRL to URL: the challenges of getting a small business online

Before the pandemic hit, Winnipeg jewelry maker C.J. Tennant wasn't using e-commerce at all. Like many small business owners across the country, she had to build an online retail space from scratch in order to stay competitive.

Independent retailers must adapt to take on online giants

Winnipeg jewelry maker C.J. Tennant had to start an e-commerce site from scratch, including modelling her own products in photos like this, taken by her elderly mother. (

Throughout the pandemic much of our shopping has switched to online. But what has that meant for small businesses who didn't have an online shopping portal before the pandemic started?

C.J. Tennant, who makes jewelry in Winnipeg, was in that position—starting an e-commerce business from scratch. She spoke to Nora about the experience. Here's part of their conversation.

So when you're not sure where to begin, where do you begin?

So it started with kind of familiarizing myself with the main options. Wix, Shopify, Squarespace, Etsy, etcetera. Some people just set up shops directly on their Facebook page, only they don't have a separate website, and chat a lot with other makers in the community. Just ask really direct questions. Does this work? What don't you like? What do you like? And then was lucky enough to be referred to someone who I refer to as my website, tutor, and guide, who took me through the process by taking those conversations as I had sort of figured out: I like this, I don't like this, I want to figure out how to do this, how can I do this with technology? And she was able to kind of take that and filter it and then direct me, because there's so many resources, and not all the information is good. And when you don't know the language, you don't have any way of knowing how to get to the good information. And I think that's part of where it got overwhelming all the time.

I know that for you the personal touch, the personal interaction, helping someone find the right piece for them are really important parts of what you do. So how do you recreate that experience online?

That's probably been the most challenging thing, because I feel really strongly that jewelry is you know, it's about how it looks. But the truth is that most of your favourite pieces of jewelry aren't your favourite because of how they look. They're your favourite because they connect you to a certain experience, or they feel in a particular way on your body or your art or how you feel when you wear them. So it's really like a physical sensation that really connects you to those favourite pieces, because we all have a pair of earrings we love but we never actually walk out the door wearing because they're not comfortable.

Have there been any unexpected benefits to this new online presence you have?

For sure, I think what's been really interesting is that the connections with community and customers and clients have come in ways that I didn't expect. So you know, one day I got this strange call on my phone from a number I didn't recognize. And it turned out to be a client calling from England, who summers in Manitoba, and so was familiar with my work. And she and her sister would visit the studio regularly, like annually. And her sister who also lived in Europe had gotten caught in Manitoba, because where she lived in Europe she couldn't travel back to. So she was unexpectedly spending the winter in Manitoba. And this woman wanted to send her a little pick me up, a little point of connection. So I worked with her, we figured something out.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.