Early in the pandemic, Norah Fountain could see there was a problem. People were shopping from home in record numbers, but local businesses were losing out.
“A business owner in Glen Orchard said to me ‘how am I supposed to have an online store when I don’t even have broadband internet?’” says Norah, the executive director of the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce. At the same time, she could see the mountain of Amazon boxes piling up in the Bala post office, every one of them representing money that was flowing out of the community.
“I called a contact at FedNor and said ‘we want to take on Amazon,’” Norah says with a laugh. “And there was this long pause. But then he said, ‘How exactly do you plan to do that?’”
After many months – and with support from FedNor, the Township of Muskoka Lakes, and others – ShopMuskokaLakes.ca was launched. It’s an online marketplace where shoppers can peruse an astonishing array of wares – from health and beauty to fashion, from food and beverage to cultural experiences, all with a Muskoka theme and connection.
“This is unlike anything out there,” says Norah.
The array of vendors includes mature brands that have their own e-commerce setup already, and individual artisans making their first forays into online selling. There are artisans whose product is completely customized and made to order, and service providers who don’t have a tangible product at all. “You can buy gift certificates for a massage, order cards or candles and have them shipped to you, or pre-plan your purchase for items you’re going to pick up in the store,” says Norah.
The site also lets people book experiences, such as cruising aboard the Wenonah II cruise ship or renting an antique boat for the day.
Every vendor has a Muskoka connection. And unlike Amazon or other large online stores, ShopMuskokaLakes.ca takes no commission or administration fees from the vendors. “There’s a small annual membership fee to help cover marketing costs, and that’s it,” says Norah.
“It’s all about helping local businesses to recover, and helping shoppers find the Muskoka-themed products they’re looking for.”