Small businesses innovating via Instagram to stay afloat during COVID-19

As Ontario prepares for a second lockdown on Boxing Day, it is yet another body blow to small businesses that have been struggling to survive since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were first announced in March


As Ontario prepares for a second lockdown on Boxing Day, it is yet another body blow to small businesses that have been struggling to survive since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were first announced in March.

Many have gone out of business, others may not make it through this lockdown and still others are hanging by a thread.

Contending with closures, zero foot traffic and layoffs has led many small businesses to ramp up their presence online, where customers have also migrated to shop for everything from Christmas presents to toilet paper. Innovation is the name of the game to stay afloat and some local businesses and entrepreneurs have taken to Instagram to do just that.

Daphne Nissani, Boa Boutique

Daphne Nissani, owner of Boa Boutique in Toronto and Oakville, has found a unique way to use Instagram’s live video feature to move inventory, by conducting interactive live sales and auctions.

“I’ve done 60 live [videos] and over 150 hours of lives,” said Nissani, who launched the weekly broadcasts just two days after non-essential businesses were ordered closed in March.

She says the idea initially came from another boutique owner, but auctions run in Nissani’s blood.

“My father was a professional auctioneer and I thought – let’s try it,” she said. “I didn’t know how long [the lockdown] was going to last and I didn’t want to get stuck with dated inventory. So I thought, what the heck?”

The process is involved and exhausting. Nissani goes live on Instagram for three hours at a time with a collection of items curated for the sale.

Customers tune in and either bid on or claim items as she displays them, often modelling them herself, while fielding questions and feedback from those watching and shopping. Those who purchase items pay via e-transfer and sold items are then sent to one of their two locations for curbside pickup or shipping.

“You get used to it. We’ve developed this formula … we’ve learned how to adapt to this new channel of distribution,” said Nissani of her team. “It requires a lot of technique and an ability to connect with people on the show,” while remaining organized and meticulously keeping track of every sale.

Nissani says Instagram makes the execution of the concept easy for both her business and her customers — a blessing given the idea was just an experiment to begin with.

“[There was] this sense that you have to do something, you don’t know what it is and you don’t want to take too many risks and you don’t want to lose too much of your profit. But if nothing’s ever been done before and everything is so unprecedented, then you may as well try,” she said.

The gamble has paid off and she’s been able to sell stock and serve customers — unconventionally, but successfully.

“I never would have imagined I would become a fashion auctioneer. I couldn’t even imagine being in front of the camera so much. I wasn’t prepared, but I got prepared and you do what you have to do,” she said.

Miheer Shete, Curryish

Miheer Shete is the chef and owner of Curryish — a business he launched entirely on Instagram.

Shete was the chef de cuisine at a fine dining restaurant in Toronto when the pandemic hit Canada’s shores. With restaurants forced to close in the spring, he was temporarily laid off like millions of others in the field.

“I really enjoyed the family time [at first]. Then, the reality hit and I [realised] this is not going away anytime soon and we’ve got to do something, quickly,” says Shete.

As a chef, he always dreamed of one day owning his own restaurant, but those ambitions didn’t seem realistic at this time.

“I had a great career, great job with a great company and all of a sudden, the restaurant was shut down,” he said. “[I thought] what’s plan B? I can’t just go down so easily.”

While trying to find a way to stay afloat, Shete says he was reminded of the entrepreneurial spirit of people in his home city of Mumbai, India.

“Back in India, this is a very common practice. People start something very small,” he said. “I have seen my mom or aunts cooking from home or starting something small and they provide this very unique experience. Not a restaurant experience, but a different experience where you get to connect with your guests one-on-one — and the delivery option was the ‘dabbawalla’.”

Dabbawallas are lunch box delivery men who carry meals from homes across Mumbai to offices and schools, in time for the lunch hour, every day. It is widely regarded as the most organized and proficient food delivery service in the world.

The ideas all came together in his new business Curryish – gourmet meal kits of what he calls “Indian Toronto food” delivered to your door.

He said the decision to launch it on Instagram was spontaneous, simply because he was familiar with it as a casual user.

“I’d never thought, in my head, that I would ever start a business through Instagram,” he said. “I just didn’t know any better way to do it.”

Shete says the ease of use of the platform was the main draw and the options to promote posts was a welcome bonus.

He posts a weekly menu online with a limit of about 50 to 60 meals available. Customers send him a direct message with their order and then e-transfer payment. On the weekend, they receive a meal kit with a few prepared as well as do-it-yourself components, along with cooking and plating instructions.

Initially, Shete delivered the kits himself, but says the response has been overwhelmingly positive and he sells out almost every week. He’s now had to enlist the help of a few more ‘dabbawallas’ for his deliveries.

There are some challenges when it comes to keeping up with regular content creation on the account, Shete explains, but his customers have also helped in spreading the word.

“I have a very loyal customer base — some of them have been ordering every week. Their word-of-mouth has been the strongest weapon for me,” he said.

Curryish now has a website and in the long run, Shete still hopes to have a storefront, but feels the current model has been a very successful spring board.

“I feel lucky, blessed and proud at the same time. But I still know there’s lots of work to be done,” he said.

Casey Cunningham, Bohemian Blooms Shop

Photographer Casey Cunningham had to quickly pivot her fledgling plant and vintage business into her main source of income when COVID-19 restrictions led to a severe drought of work in her industry.

She began collecting plants six years ago, initially using Facebook’s marketplace feature to sell a few plants as a hobby. She later launched Bohemian Blooms on Instagram in the fall of 2019 and says it has seen exponential growth during the pandemic.

“Now it’s like a full-blown little shop,” she said. “I think everyone was at home and just got sick of staring at the empty space and they realized how much plants actually bring to your home. And it just started to escalate aggressively in the best kind of way,” she said.

Cunningham runs the store out of her own home and her sales model is simple — she posts an item on her Instagram feed with its details and price and customers send her a direct message to purchase it with an e-transfer payment. She also conducts “story sales” where a series of items are posted using the platform’s “stories” feature and the first person to message, claims the item. She then offers delivery or curbside pickup.

“I just love the opportunities that Instagram gives small businesses, with a little bit of restrictions of course,” she said.

Those restrictions include a requirement of 10,000 followers before one can add website links to stories – something many small businesses could use to their advantage.

“That would be such a beneficial thing to use, but I can’t use it because I don’t have enough followers or I don’t have the engagement,” she said.

But despite the limitations, Cunningham says the Instagram store has been instrumental in helping her tide over the lean times of the pandemic.

“The plant side of the business has really helped me … because it’s supplied so much of my income, because I’m not doing photography at all,” she said.

She adds that the business has also been a learning experience as well as a creative outlet and led to much personal growth.

“Like everyone says, this has been a really crappy year and it definitely has, but this year for me has been the biggest transitional year in the best way. And I’m okay with it,” she said.

Community connection

While using Instagram has helped launch or keep their businesses afloat, all three business owners say a happy by product of the decision to use the platform in this way has been the connections they have made and the communities they have built.

Nissani says it was heartening to see customers connecting via her live auctions.

“[In the early days] there was so much uncertainty and people wanted something to do and people wanted to feel this connection and this live space had so many women — they have this desire to connect with other women. And that really happens naturally in its own way on the live feed,” she explains.  “We’ve gotten to know the customers and vice versa and it’s so nice to just see that connection made. I love it. It’s my favorite part.”

Shete says the instant feedback and being able to see his customers enjoying his food via their Instagram posts and stories has been very gratifying.

“The fun part is after [the meal kit] is delivered, how personally I was in contact with many customers,” he said. “People have sent me photos of their kids eating the food and they say ‘Oh, I can’t even imagine my kid is eating a daal,’ and I think that is so special. And throughout these eight months of Curryish, I was able to connect with that one-on-one factor so much.”

Cunningham says she finds the plant community in particular to be very kind and supportive.

“There’s a lot of kindness and just compassion, which is really nice to see, especially in the times that we live in right now,” she said. “It keeps me going and keeps me wanting to keep like selling and it’s the connection that I get with people that I love the most.”

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