Detroit Pepper Co. owner Marlin Hughes says business has increased during the pandemic as more people opt for healthier fare. Hughes says he appreciates the loyalty of many Detroit customers and he's grateful to offer healthy food options. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

Want to shop local while limiting exposure to holiday crowds?

We bring good tidings. Several Detroit neighborhood groups have created “virtual marketplaces,” showcasing the goods and services of independent stores in their communities. In total, more than 100 businesses, from southwest taquerias to an eastside pet supply store, are on various online platforms. 

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In a city where more than 1,500 residents died from COVID-19, small business owners are reeling from the pandemic and pivoting to survive. Black and Latino businesses were least likely to receive pandemic assistance. The virtual marketplaces are the latest survival tactic as the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to stay indoors during what is normally retailers’ most prosperous time of the year.

Many of the retail sites launched just after Thanksgiving and remain active for the holiday season. Some feature Facebook Live events where small business operators pitch their goods and often tell a bit of their personal stories, which is the kind of human touch you can’t get from Amazon.

The personal approach doesn’t stop there. Given the wide variety of businesses participating, many small businesses offer a wide range of individualized touches. That could range from individual appointments to visit shops, exclusive offers on unique gifts, special discounts and curbside pickup.  

The East Warren Development Corp., decided to go virtual instead of holding its usual in-person marketplace for Small Business Saturday due to COVID-19. The site has been visited more than 1,200 times in the few days since going online, organizers said. 

Detroit business communities are going online for holiday shopping. (Screenshot)

The nonprofit works with more than 70 businesses, both brick-and-mortar shops to home-based entrepreneurs, in the Morningside, East English Village and Cornerstone Village neighborhoods. 

“As far as I know, we have lost one business,” due to the economic impact of COVID-19, said Joe Rashid, East Warren Development’s executive director.  Given the wide range of small businesses, it’s too hard to generalize the impact of COVID-19 on retailers that vary from restaurants, bars and art galleries to hardware stores, jewelers and hair salons, Rashid said.   

“What I can say is that everyone has to try to keep adapting, but most small businesses already understand they need to be resilient,” he said. 

COVID has hit Black businesses particularly hard. Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses nationwide have been shut by COVID-19, compared to just 17 percent of white-owned businesses.

However, Detroit Pepper Co., a carry-out spot whose menu offers a variety of stuffed pepper dishes, says his business has risen since the pandemic. “A lot of people know it’s important to eat healthy right now,” said owner Marlin Hughes. “And I’m happy I can help provide that service for them. I appreciate my customers more than ever now. And it’s great to feel their appreciation of what I’m trying to do.” 

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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1 Comment

  1. One thing that is really harming small businesses that I know is the chaos in the post office. Going on line enables you to access marketplaces (often with far higher incomes) al lover the world. For most small businesses that means using the post office. Increased costs reduces sales and equally important long package delays eat up a lot of time as you are continually dealing with calming customers. On line sales though can really make a difference. For many people I know their small stores are essentially warehouses selling to a mix of online and in person shoppers. Sadly there does not seem to be a lot of training in this in the Black community though I know folks who have been really successful with an online strategy.

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