Sook makes online shopping local
A lot of people complain about the rise of Amazon and its world's richest man phenomenon, but convenience is king in a touchless world.
Marketing man and founder Jonathan Sandals cooked up Sook to give back some of the advantages to local merchants search for local merchants in searches rather than default to the great warehouse on the cloud.
Sook is a browser plug-in that is particularly friendly to clothing and homeware stores. Sandals started in Seattle and expanded to Portland in October. He has now signed up 30 stores in Portland and 513 across the United States, with more than 1,000 active users.
Sook users can activate a feature where the program knows when you are on certain shopping websites, such as Amazon, Nordstrom, Zara, Macy's, and opens the plug-in.
Sandals found that small businesses often don't have the time or tech-savvy to set up e-commerce sites and stay on top of listing inventory. His solution is to find those who use digital point of sales systems —– in the first case, Shopify — and put their inventory online for them.
"When I was talking to people about their online shops, they'd say, 'We've had our online shop for three years, and we sold nine products. It's just more like a necessity.' I realized that there's a huge need for connecting people who would buy locally if it was convenient and affordable and easy."
He says Amazon was allowed to operate like normal in the pandemic, whereas brick and mortar retailers were throttled by social distancing.
Consumers download a plug-in for Chrome and click on the logo — a white S on a peach background — when they feel the urge to shop.
The simple interface brings up categories, such as JACKETS, SHOES or GROOMING. Shoppers can limit their search by distance and price, which is similar to how many people shop (or used to, pre-pandemic) in real life.
"I think Portland is a city that's defined by its independent spirited community, especially the small business," said Sandals. "It embodies what we're trying to do."
He reads local papers, talks to locals, and researches Google Business to find the appropriate indie stores. For Portland, he compiled a list of 70, then used software to analyze which ones were with Magento, an open-source e-commerce platform, then looked at which products belonged in which category. The latter involved a lot of tagging.
The first contact with the store owner is emailing them to tell them they're on the list. If they like it, it leads to referrals of their friends' stores.
Sook creates 50 to 250 product categories per store. Store owners can tag their inventory when they set up a platform like Shopify. If they drop an item, it is automatically dropped from Sook.
Seattle is up and running, and he's working on big cities like Chicago. It took him a week to research New York City and bring in 100 stores.
Right now, Sook does not take a cut of sales. The business model is to develop special publications, like Fall fashion guides, and charge for ads.
One store that signed up with Sook is Blithe & Bonny, a lotions and scents store on North Williams Avenue and home of the $26 scented candle. The firm makes more money wholesaling to other shops around the country. The Baer family owns and runs it. They moved here from Santa Cruz to join their daughter. Mom Glenda hand-makes the lotions in their own studio and adds from 30 different scents as the customer requests. This just-in-time method means they carry little inventory and can serve a variety of needs.
A former Hewlett-Packard and Oracle operations guy, David Baer, the dad, has a Master's in Business Administration from Stanford, specializing in entrepreneurship and accounting. He runs Blithe & Bonny's operations and technical back end.
Sook came to them in June 2020 because they use Shopify.
"I don't believe I pay anything," David Baer said. "Our volume has gone up since they started the beta. Now that it's launched, I haven't looked."
Most of Blithe & Bonny's marketing comes from its listing on Yelp, posting to Instagram (and thus Facebook) two to three times a week, and quarterly emails to the customer mailing list.
Blake Raspberry, David and Glenda's daughter, does much of the store's product design and messaging.
Raspberry says Sook has helped get their face out there as a retailer rather than as a wholesaler. She estimates sales are 90:10, online to brick and mortar, compared to 70:30 before the pandemic. Raspberry says it's hard to tell whether customers come from Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest.
There's a twist, though. They have been going for 12 years, and Raspberry says they have a deep customer base.
"I feel like we will make it, but we are closing the store in the new year," she said. "We are just going to be online because our lease is up at the end of the year anyway. We just decided when the pandemic hit it's not feasible to have a retail shop right now."
Jonathan Sandals did not seek investment for his startup Sook. He's bootstrapping. Sandals sold his house in Montreal in 2017 and invested some in the blockchain-based cryptocurrency of the day, Bitcoin. The currency has gone from $7,000 to $15,000 in 2020, but its spectacular peak was $19,783 in December 2017.
"Back in early 2017 I was trying to find something interesting to invest in so I put about 15% of my net worth in Bitcoin. I think (Bitcoin was trading at) around $2,500-$3,000 then. When it exploded in late 2017 about 95% of my net worth was in Bitcoin, so I sold it off at between $15,000 and $19,000 until it was back down to 10% of my net worth. I used the money to help friends out, travel, move to Seattle and hire developers to make Sook."
Blithe & Bonny
4140 N Williams Ave.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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