Bricks and mortar businesses the world over are lamenting the fact that too many consumers are shopping online or spending their money at the big chain stores. While these issues have seen many a suburban business fail, another usually pops up in its place before too long, and on the cycle goes. For regional towns around Australia, it’s not so easy. As more businesses close and people move to the city to make a living, these towns themselves die out.
Believing that the problem lies in the fact that these local businesses aren’t online, Queensland entrepreneur Melody Jarvis decided to fix the problem herself and launched Shop My Town. At first it was just a Facebook page encouraging people to shop locally around Queensland’s Lockyer Valley for Christmas, but as the community rallied and businesses reported an increase in support, Jarvis decided to take the concept further.
“As the small town of Gatton declined, my desire to bring life back to the region became a vision to save Aussie towns for the future of our children. I believe that small town life and the community spirit in small towns is the most beneficial lifestyle for humans to thrive and that it should be protected,” Jarvis said.
Shop My Town is perhaps best described as part Yellow Pages, part community noticeboard. The service creates a sub-platform for each specific region, where local businesses can advertise themselves on their own dedicated page, adding their social media channels, promotions, and any other information. But rather than just setting up a platform for them, Shop My Town works with the individual businesses to help them tell their best story.
In tech terms, Shop My Town is a fairly simple platform. Given that countless digital agencies and web marketing products exist to help bricks and mortar businesses establish and make the most of an online presence, Shop My Town isn’t reinventing the wheel or doing anything revolutionary, but for regional towns, it sort of is (in fact, it was so revolutionary that the local papers banned Jarvis from advertising the service in their pages).
Jarvis explained, “We work with bricks and mortar based business solely, and their main challenge is the change in shopping habits of locals. People have lost connection with their towns and no longer shop in the main street. It is essential that each business represent themselves on social platforms, telling their family story, and showcasing their products, to drive people back to the streets. There is a huge gap in where these businesses need to be, and their current understanding of social media, and how to use technology to engage local support online.”
As such, one of the most important parts of Shop My Town is that it is run by people who properly understand the issues rather than city slickers used to promoting hip Surry Hills cafés; rather than helping people already somewhat familiar social media marketing enhance what they’re already doing, Shop My Town often starts with the basics.
“It can be daunting for some members, so we are very available to explain the process,” Jarvis said. “Within two weeks, professional photos are taken, content is written to showcase the business, a SEO-optimised page is built and all relevant social media accounts are created and linked to their page. A blog is set into the page, and training commences for the business.”
According to Jarvis, each business usually identifies a younger staff member to take charge of their online marketing, and so Shop My Town works with and trains them. An ongoing subscription fee ensures ongoing support from the startup.
With a Shop My Town platform now solidly established in the Lockyer Valley, with 30 local businesses on board, the startup is setting off on its expansion plans, with the key to this the employing of a ‘town connector’ in each region, someone on the ground to be the local support person for the businesses who come on board.
Jarvis said, “This person is already a shining example in their community, and our program empowers and invests in that person to become a connector between business, community and government. Only when these three are connected do small towns heal and thrive.”
Shop My Town is currently looking to get town connectors on board for the Wandoan and Toowoomba regions, though Jarvis said there has been intense demand for the service all over.
“Our greatest challenge from the beginning has been the demand for the product. There is such a gap in the market that we fill, that any sales appointments would result in a flow of demand our early systems could not cope with,” she said.
Jarvis joined The Entourage’s Scalable & Saleable program earlier this year to help develop and put in place scalable systems to help the business grow and increase its capacity.
“Our 36 month goals have been reached in six months, and having the training, support and mentorship of the Entourage program is enabling us to handle rapid growth in a healthy, sustainable way,” Jarvis said.
While the idea of a town connector in place to help the businesses on the ground is a good one, particularly given that the businesses need in-person support, it would be interesting to see if, in the future, Shop My Town can further systemise this process by developing an online training program that can guide businesses through the basics. Jarvis has self-funded the growth of the business thus far, but is looking to raise funds over the next few months to help spur it on.
However it happens, the passion Jarvis has for the startup’s mission is clear. Though she isn’t one of those entrepreneurs looking to conquer the entire world with her product, her end goal may actually be just as daunting.
“With urgency, every part of the Shop My Town system has been created to address small town decline….we are advocates for people that feel they have been left behind.”