New “Nearby” online platform aims to help small businesses compete with Amazon

As the pandemic continues, retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target rack up digital sales, while thousands of small businesses struggle to keep the lights on. With Main Street far behind, a company found a solution to help local stores compete with online giants.

“Nearby” is an online storefront that manages marketing, orders, fulfillment and shipping for local businesses. Company founder April Underwood has used her experience as a product design leader at tech giants like Slack and Twitter – and hopes Nearby will help beloved neighborhood businesses carry on.

More than 160,000 businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest data available from the online review site Yelp.

“There’s no website or app where you can go and buy things from stores in your own hometown, and have them delivered to your door like you would from Amazon or a major player in electronic commerce. And that’s what we’re building, ”Underwood told NBC News.

She piloted the program with a website called “Keep Oakland Alive,” which features 40 small businesses. Now it’s growing nationwide – the cities of Austin and Charleston are next.

The company withholds a 5% fee from Oakland to cover credit card charges, sales tax, and delivery charges.

April Underwood, CEO and founder of the “Nearby” platform, launched her pilot platform in Oakland, Calif., To support small businesses that have been hit so hard by the pandemic.Jacob Ward / NBC News

Underwood said Nearby offers what a small business couldn’t afford: people to make deliveries, content writers to build an online presence, and digital marketers who can find paying customers online. And because the pandemic has forced so many small businesses to quickly switch to e-commerce, these businesses suddenly have digitalized inventory systems in place that bring stores together in an online marketplace, which was missing in “buy local.” “online” efforts of the past.

“These big e-commerce players – Amazon, Target, Walmart – they’ve created expectations where people think they should have access to unlimited selection at the lowest prices, and it should all happen in a very short period of time. limited, ”Underwood said. “We have been led to believe that this is what we should expect, and that it is in fact sustainable, and that all other retailers, large and small, should reach this level,” she said. declared.

Erica Perez, co-owner of Oaktown Spice Shop, said she was concerned her store may have to close completely when the pandemic begins. However, a collaboration with Nearby and a fee of just 5% – which is only collected when the retailer makes a sale – has allowed them to grow their e-commerce business.

There has been a resurgence in the number of consumers wanting to shop locally – suggesting small stores could do better once the virus is under control and things start to normalize.

“When we opened the store, we set our prices thinking we were going to sell things: people coming in the door,” Perez recalls. “I think the world has changed forever, and we’re going to be selling things online to a greater degree than ever before. And we are learning to do it. We’re definitely not set up here to be a fulfillment center from a retail store.

Erica Perez is part owner of Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, Calif., Which she opened with her husband as “a place where people could come and smell and taste things.” They had to primarily turn to e-commerce sales due to the pandemic, which was made possible by the Nearby platform.Jacob Ward / NBC News

Iguehi James, CEO and designer of Oakland-based clothing brand Love Iguehi, says the new platform has allowed small business owners to show off what sets them apart from a big box store.

“I do everything by hand here or I get [apparel] produced here in Oakland. And so it is a slower fashion. But what I like to say is that a lot of quality, a lot of care goes into every part that we make, ”said James.

Although she misses meeting and styling her clients in person, James said “Keep Oakland Alive” has helped fill client orders relatively quickly. “If someone wants a mask and they want it tomorrow, this service is there so they can always get quality products, they can still support small businesses, but they can also get it pretty quickly.” , she said.

Nationally, many consumers still only visit one or two stores and do most of their shopping there to reduce their potential exposure to the coronavirus, said Neil Saunders, general manager of the retail division of GlobalData. , to NBC News in an email. “However, that’s not all bad news, as there has been a resurgence in the number of consumers looking to buy local – suggesting small stores could do better once the virus is under control and things are done. will start to normalize, ”Saunders said.

Underwood is betting on this “buy local” trend.

“I think local buying is, frankly, the smallest but most pragmatic way to actively participate in your community,” she said.

“But, that fuel is going to run out if it isn’t easier for consumers, that’s where Nearby takes over to fix this problem.”