Council discusses “digital general store” to help island businesses

Intent is for businesses to use eCommerce to sustain in altered COVID-19 economy

Businesses are turning more to online during COVID-19, and it looks like the Bainbridge Island City Council might do the same to help those businesses.

During Tuesday night’s study session, the council discussed a “digital general store” to help island businesses and organizations with eCommerce during the pandemic.

“Government typically has a hands-off approach to helping businesses, but there’s a big exception to that, and that big exception is when there’s a crisis that has occurred to the country,” Deputy Mayor Joe Deets said.

Many businesses and organizations have diverted their focus to online sales since in-person shopping isn’t as viable due to COVID restrictions. Responding to the need to let others know about that, the council’s Ad Hoc Committee — consisting of Deets, Mayor Leslie Schneider and Councilmember Kol Medina — has recommended the digital store.

“We are recommending eCommerce because it has transitioned from just a growing area of business to being a critical part of survival for businesses in the COVID-era,” Deets explained to others on the council. “We’re also recommending that the city of Bainbridge Island support efforts to develop eCommerce capabilities for businesses.

City documents say the committee believes that actions taken by the city for economic recovery should benefit as many island businesses as possible, and enable them not just to survive temporarily, but thrive in the possibly permanent altered economy created by the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s providing a whole new experience for those of us on Bainbridge Island who really do want to shop local and support our local businesses,” Schneider said. “A small vendor would kind of be on equal footing with a large vendor. What we’re doing is creating more of an essence of who we are as Bainbridge Island from an economic point of view.”

On July 28, the committee provided the council with a COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan, consisting of actions that the city could use to assist local businesses. Approved at that meeting was spending up to $20,000 to support the “Save Our Stores” campaign led by the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association, along with reimbursing the organizations for up to $5,000 for their COVID-19 related expenses, documents say.

On June 23, $10,000 was approved to buy disposable and reusable face masks for local businesses.

Meanwhile, businesses that invested in digital marketing and eCommerce have shown to be fairing better in the pandemic than those that did not, city documents say. Deets noted one business decided it no longer needed its downtown Winslow brick and mortar store. He also pointed out another business that before the pandemic did not take any online orders is now earning a third of its revenue through eCommerce.

While many businesses have had success with that strategy, others lack the resources and skills to come up with a digital strategy on their own. The creation of the “digital general store” would fill that void, documents say.

“We know the businesses that are doing better are those that have an eCommerce element,” Deets said. “We know that a lot of businesses would like to do that but they don’t have the expertise or capital to do so. ECommerce is actually a means of business survival, that we know and the data proves that.”

Per the Ad Hoc Committee, key benefits of a digital general store for Bainbridge include:

  • Residents would enjoy coming to one hometown hub looking for what they need, instead of searching through a list of independent websites. It would provide Islanders with a convenient means to shop local, without the health risks of physically coming into the stores.
  • Businesses would establish or expand their digital footprints and eCommerce revenues with minimal time, technical capacity or financial investment.
  • It would showcase Bainbridge Island on the global digital stage as an innovative small town, balancing the best of its past with the future of its business community.

Additionally, notable features of the “digital general store” would include:

  • Listings of representative products from any licensed businesses on Bainbridge Island, whether they have a “brick and mortar” location or not. There are over 2,200 licenses issued to people who would qualify.
  • Listings for booking appointment of services (delivery, hairstylists, therapists, etc.).
  • Listings of local consultants specializing in areas such as digital marketing, back-end technology, sales channel management and cybersecurity.
  • Listings for activities, such as those offered by Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park and Recreation, and the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network.
  • Interactive navigation resources, such as walking maps of businesses, walking and biking trails, downtown public bathrooms, etc

In terms of funding, the estimated range of costs is $35,000 to $75,000 of general funding, including contingencies, documents say. The funding would be broken down into two phases. The city would have to issue a Request for Qualifications for Phase 1 ($5,000 to $10,000) and would entail discovery, infrastructure design, proof of concept and defining the project scope for Phase 2.

Phase 2 ($30,000 to $65,000) would be around 12 months and consist of building content, onboard business offerings, launching the digital store along with digital education and basic eCommerce service offerings, and site operation for 10 months post-launch, documents say.

Not all councilmembers were onboard with the proposal, including Kirsten Hytopoulos, who believes businesses and organizations should be doing this themselves.

“I kind of tend to believe people can do that themselves, and it doesn’t take that much effort,” she said. “If people are motivated to do that, they will. I’d be curious to know how many business owners you’ve polled and how many people have said this is what they want as opposed to direct grants or some sort of a larger planning effort.”

Councilmembers Rasham Nasar and Christy Carr also expressed their hesitancy and wanted more local data and input from business owners. Medina wrapped up the discussion by affirming his stance on approving the digital general store.

“I’m ready to approve this and get on with it,” he said. “I understand the concerns. I understand that it’s strange and unusual. I think there are a lot of ways that this thing, which is obviously untested, could actually provide substantial benefits for lots of organizations on the island. In the big scope of things, we’re not talking about a lot of money.”

The topic will be picked up at a future council meeting.