GRAND FORKS — The state's network of Small Business Development Centers has just launched a new e-commerce site that allows shoppers to enjoy Amazon-style convenience while buying North Dakota-made products.
The team behind ShopND.com hopes to capitalize on the major shift toward online shopping triggered by the pandemic, while providing a free, easy-to-use platform for small business owners who may not otherwise have the financial resources to establish their own online sale sites.
"We have really tried to amp up what we could be doing in this past year to help the businesses affected by COVID," said Marnie Schuschke, assistant director of operations at UND's Center for Business Engagement & Development, which hosts the eight North Dakota Small Business Development Centers throughout the state. "One of those primary things is that there were a lot of businesses that were hesitant or didn't have the capacity to initiate an e-commerce platform during that pivot to online sales."
The website allows customers to shop for items ranging from North Dakota-made jams, packaged foods and beverages to clothing, jewelry, books and personalized gifts. They are able to filter their searches according to the type of product, a specific business or city.
“This platform provides an opportunity for North Dakota patrons to support local businesses from the comfort of their own homes. Customers can choose local pickup, shipping, or even local delivery if offered by the business," said Greg Syrup, CARES program director for the organization.
Each participating business is able to list up to 50 products for free and to pay only the standard credit-card fees they would for any transaction, Schuschke says. The ND SBD does ask that interested business owners register for free as a client with the organization and meet at least once with one of the organization's trained advisers. "We are your tax dollars at work, so you might as well come and take advantage of the service," Schuschke said.
ND SBDC is also offering training opportunities to any small-business owner who would like extra help with tasks like marketing, photographing items for the website or writing product descriptions. The SBDC centers actually have audio-visual kits - complete with green screens, microphones and lighting equipment - which site sellers are free to check out to prepare their online shops.
The platform also easily integrates with existing commerce platforms such as Shopify, so individual businesses can still track information such as inventory.
ShopND has partnered with the state Department of Agriculture's Pride of Dakota program, so that the 500 companies under the Pride of Dakota umbrella can also list their products on the site. The partnership will be especially beneficial for the smaller mom-and-pop sites enrolled in Pride of Dakota, as many don't have retail storefronts and have to rely exclusively on Pride of Dakota events to sell their products, Schuschke said.
The e-commerce site was actually designed by an Iowa-based company, Member Marketplace, for $20,000 of funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Schuschke said they approached several newly-formed North Dakota companies initially to take on the project, but none were far enough along in development to be able to take it on.
"We did try to source it locally, but our funding was set to expire at the end of September, so we needed to make a decision to move forward," she said.
Since its inception in 1986, the ND SBDC network has helped business owners and entrepreneurs start, manage and grow their small businesses through professional business advising and training workshops. Services are provided at no-cost to clients through funding from the Small Business Administration, ND Department of Commerce, UND and local supporters across the state.