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How Toronto is getting main street businesses online

By Tarryn Landman

Small businesses can face big challenges when it comes to competing in the digital marketplace. In fact, almost 60% of Canadian businesses don’t have a website at all, and just 13% of Canadian retailers are online (according to 2013 Statistics Canada data).

Potential customers, however, place significant value on the online presence of businesses. A recent CIRA study, for example, found 76% percent of respondents look for product pricing information online. Another study found 80% of respondents would shop more at small businesses if they were easier to find online, with 59% buying from large corporations because they outperform independent businesses on web, mobile, and social platforms.

Recognizing the importance of an online presence for small businesses, the City of Toronto has partnered with the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (an umbrella organization for the city’s 81 Business Improvement Areas) and corporate partners to launch Digital Main Street. The initiative, which seems to be the first of its kind, aims to help main street businesses succeed in the digital world.

Participating businesses go through a Digital Readiness Check to assess their online presence and receive a Digital To-Do List with actions and information to help them improve their digital readiness. Digital Main Street also acts as a platform to connect main street businesses with local vendors, such as retail technology startups. Local technology vendors can sign up to participate in the initiative.

For Business Improvement Area members, Digital Main Street offers a Digital Service Squad that connects main street businesses with George Brown College students and recent graduates who will help businesses meet their digital goals.

Along with Digital Main Street, the BIAcademy offers main street businesses workshops and training through BIAs to build digital skills and the BIA Lab, a retail innovation startup incubator, will support the prototyping, testing and scaling of technologies and services in Toronto’s BIAs.

For economic developers looking to help local businesses succeed online, Digital Main Street provides a template for future initiatives.

This post first appeared in TINAN 73. Subscribe to TINAN for the latest economic development news and resources.