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City of Toronto to create online stores for 3,000 small businesses

Toronto Mayor John Tory at a press conference in February 2020. The Canadian Press/Cole Burston
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The City of Toronto is launching a new program to create online stores by the end of August for 3,000 small businesses and retailers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Launching today, the program, titled ShopHere, is an effort led by Digital Main Street (DMS), a city-backed initiative started by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas to train business owners on how to use online tools and resources. DMS is also supported by Google, Mastercard, Rogers, Shopify and Microsoft, among others.

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Toronto’s main street has been grappling with how to stay afloat amid the economic fallout of the pandemic, as brick-and-mortar operations were ordered to close. The City of Toronto is offering a solution: volunteers recruited by Digital Main Street will create online stores for them, and students from York University’s Schulich School of Business will teach them how to operate the stores.  

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the City tripled its DMS budget in mid-April from $240,000 to $825,000 to help businesses grapple with online operations as many were ordered to close. 

ShopHere goes one step further and creates the online stores for them. Among those eligible are businesses with fewer than 10 employees; restaurants with fewer than 25 employees; and Toronto-based artists. The City estimates 49,501 businesses fit the profile. All businesses must have been paying commercial property taxes to the city, and cannot be corporate chains or franchises.

“This is a great collaboration of Toronto’s tech community coming together and realizing that 70 per cent of Main Street retailers won’t be able to make rent,” said Chris Rickett, director of the City of Toronto’s COVID-19 business mitigation and recovery. “We all recognize what makes Toronto great is our lively streets and those that make it [so].… We all want to move them online so they can survive this.”

To do that, the program has recruited “an army of volunteer website developers” who have so far agreed to build 750 online stores. Yousuf Khatib, CEO and co-founder of Global Skills Hub, a Toronto-based recruiting company, said that when it put out a call for assistance for ShopHere, over 70 developers responded within 24 hours. The firm, along with Scotiabank, are among those that have pledged to volunteer their staff.

The City has also hired 50 students from York University’s Schulich School of Business to help firms learn how to operate the stores, including things like putting up inventory, digital marketing and curbside pickup.

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The program is funded largely by the City of Toronto, with a financial commitment from Shopify, the value of which an official did not share. Participating tech companies are offering credits to businesses: Google and Facebook are providing ad credit; eBay is providing shipping credits and access to its platform; and Mastercard is offering cybersecurity software. Toronto-based Ritual will also integrate its online ordering platform for eligible restaurants.