North Bay's Mark Sherry is incredulous thinking about how pandemic lockdowns have impacted small, independent businesses.
Before COVID-19 arrived to forever change the e-commerce landscape, billion-dollar corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart were already generating massive profits thanks to their sophisticated online platforms and lightning-fast shipping.
But then the pandemic began, and small retailers were forced to close their doors to abide provincial capacity limits. Many were unprepared for the explosion in e-commerce that followed, Sherry noted.
It put local retailers at a double disadvantage.
“We were kind of stuffing people into Wal-Mart, while you couldn't go shopping downtown in Deegan's Shoes (in downtown North Bay), which maybe only has two to three customers in at a time,” he said.
“It made no sense to me. Still doesn't make any sense to me.”
Researching the impact of online shopping on small businesses, Sherry found that if just 10 per cent of online sales were diverted from big corporations to the little retailers, it could provide a major boost to a small business's long-term viability.
“It turns a business that's struggling into one that's profitable and vibrant,” he said.
“And then they begin to grow, and then they begin to get more sales because there's more traffic, and then someone opens up beside them because there's more traffic in the downtown.
“It's kind of like a snowball that's rolling down the hill.”
Sherry, a serial entrepreneur, decided he wanted to level the playing field.
Over the last 18 months, he and his North Bay-based tech team have been developing One Red Maple, an extension for the Google Chrome web browser that enables consumers to see where they can buy the products they seek locally.
While shopping on a corporate website like Amazon, the user selects the item they want to purchase — say, a rake for collecting leaves. If the same product is available at a local store, the One Red Maple app will pop up showing the consumer where they can get it locally, its price, and how far it is from their location.
If the exact product isn't available, One Red Maple will show the consumer the closest matches to that item.
The consumer can then click on the locally available option they want and the app will take them directly to that retailer's website where they can complete the transaction.
The app works by reading the information on the corporate site and then pairing it to the information that Sherry's team has compiled into a database of local retailers.
Included in the 'bubble’ of businesses Sherry’s built are independent stores and franchises, such as Canadian Tire or Home Hardware.
Essentially, a vendor qualifies if the business is locally owned and any profits are reinvested back into the community.
“If the money leaves your town, that's outside the bubble,” he explained. “If the money stays in your town, that's inside the bubble.”
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Not only is the consumer supporting a local retailer, but they're also getting local customer service and, in many cases, paying a lower price than they would through the corporate site, Sherry noted.
“From what we've seen with Amazon, RONA or the local hardware store almost always matches them or has a better price,” he said.
“So Amazon is not necessarily the most inexpensive place to shop. It's just an easy place to shop.”
Sherry isn’t new to entrepreneurship.
He’s the mastermind behind iRing, whose mining software improves the efficiency of drilling and blasting underground, and one half of the creative duo that conceived the party game The Game of Things.
In launching his newest venture, he and his team have taken up office space in the historic Lefebvre building in downtown North Bay. The company employs five people — four full-time and one-part time — along with Sherry and his wife, who have agreed not to draw salaries until it becomes profitable.
Though One Red Maple is currently only available in North Bay, Sherry’s expansion plans call for a rapid rollout to other communities in the North, across the province and, eventually, throughout Canada.
Retailers can register their businesses for free, and Sherry said the service will likely remain free for at least a couple of years in order to get widespread buy-in, from both the retail market and the end user market.
After that, One Red Maple will charge a fee every time a sale is diverted from a corporate site to an independent retailer, up to a monthly maximum, which would be calculated based on a vendor’s inventory of products.
A small retailer might pay up to $25 per month, for example, while a larger franchisee would pay more.
Ultimately, Sherry’s goal is to create specialized software — called an application programming interface (API) — that would enable One Red Maple to capture live data from corporate retail sites and set up its own shopping cart.
That means a consumer could purchase items from multiple local retailers in one transaction and check out through a single shopping cart.
Sherry estimates the value of that market hovers around $140 billion.
“We’re not going to capture all of that market,” he said. “But even if we get a small percentage of that market, it’s a big number.”