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Published in Small Business

MEDC pilot program seeks to connect corporate purchasers with small biz during holidays

BY Sunday, December 06, 2020 06:00pm

Calls to support small businesses during the holiday shopping season have perhaps never been louder than this year.

The pandemic has upended the restaurant industry, while local retailers facing capacity restrictions and fewer resources are forced to compete directly with online giants equipped with a vast logistical network and an overwhelming online presence.

Jessica Malkin, owner of Grand Rapids-based The Market Made. COURTESY PHOTO

The situation pushed Joe Agostinelli to want to do something about it.

In September, Agostinelli became executive director of the Grand Rapids Area Revitalization Task Force, which was created by Mayor Rosalynn Bliss to coordinate the city’s pandemic economic rebound. He recently pitched an idea to Michigan Economic Development Corp. officials that’s meant to drive large holiday purchases to area small businesses.

“We had been talking about how we figure out a way to encourage the premise of all of this: You have a lot of large, corporate entities that typically do things around the holiday giving season,” said Agostinelli, who was a partner for seven years at Southwest Michigan First. “This is the time when we as a community have to be trying any and all things we can to support these local businesses. It’s no secret, this is a very challenging time.”

The MEDC liked the idea. Under the Grand Rapids Area Winter Buy Local Initiative, small businesses add themselves to a list corporate buyers can use when seeking suppliers for typical holiday gifts like food baskets, flowers and various crafts. Corporate entities also can customize their search for minority-, women- or veteran-owned companies.

For one, the initiative builds off a similar program the MEDC launched earlier this year for a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) procurement platform. Also, during the pandemic, the MEDC has had to pivot from in-person, business-to-business matchmaking to virtual events.

“We’re hoping to do this platform to give a little easier access point for not only corporations but small businesses in the area to see what else is in the community to support purchases from a local standpoint,” said Bobby Chasnis, director of the MEDC’s Pure Michigan Business Connect program.

Regional pilot

The result is a regional, rather than statewide, pilot program for businesses in Kent, Ottawa, Ionia and Montcalm counties.

“We’re looking to get some feedback from the Grand Rapids team before opening it to the entire state,” Chasnis said.

Pure Michigan Business Connect is coordinating the program that, as of Dec. 3, had 18 local suppliers signed up from Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Middleville, Jenison, Lowell and Grand Haven. They include upcycled textile manufactures, CBD producers, skincare producers, floral shops, cleaning services, food retailers, candlemakers and jewelers. Most have gift certificates available. Within the first week of the program, officials hadn’t yet formally sought corporate purchasers.

The virtual business-to-business initiative is modeled off an MEDC program in March that connected companies with PPE supplies. Chasnis said more than 3,000 submissions from companies in need of PPE have come in so far.

“Having that success and seeing a lot of individuals accessing this, we wanted to pivot off of that and see if it could translate into this holiday corporate gift-giving,” Chasnis said. 

Getting noticed

Pandemic aside, small businesses face daunting challenges when competing for online space against retail giants.

“It would be great to see some of the bigger corporations from the west side or even smaller businesses just find different businesses they might not be aware of,” Chasnis said, noting what at times can be costly marketing for small businesses. “We’re hoping some of the smaller businesses that might not have that footprint will get noticed.”

That’s the hope of Jessica Malkin, owner of The Market Made in Grand Rapids, who’s among the 18 supplier companies that have signed up.

“The bigger companies and corporations just dominate the Google search page so much, it’s so hard to find local businesses with how their algorithms are and how they monopolize the internet space,” Malkin said.

Malkin started her company selling various home decor goods and professional design services during the pandemic. She lost her job as the manager of a retail store because she is high-risk for contracting the virus.

“I wallowed for a couple of months trying to figure out what I wanted to do and looked for a virtual job but wasn’t having a lot of luck,” she said.

Malkin heard about the Pure Michigan Business Connect program in early December in the #GRbossbabes Facebook group. She signed up to sell customized home decor boxes, interior design services and various home goods.

Other entrepreneurs also heard about the program through Facebook.

Tracey Gerdeman, co-owner of the Southside Flower Market in Grand Rapids, found out about the program through the same social networking group. The woman-owned flower shop is approaching its one-year anniversary at its brick-and-mortar store.

“Obviously, we’re not growing as fast as we’d like to” because of the pandemic, which shuttered floral businesses this spring, Gerdeman said. 

However, during the earlier months of the pandemic, the shop specializing in custom flower orders was able to deliver flowers that were assembled at the home of one of the owners.

“You learn to pivot, and we pivoted every week,” Gerdeman said. 

The company is marketing itself in the Pure Michigan Business Connect program as a “European style flower market” that specializes in custom orders.

“The opportunity to get your name out there and let people know you’re not just the normal florist is always awesome,” Gerdeman said. 

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